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Military history of Britain during World War II

This page is intended to serve as a focal point for information pertinent to understanding British activity during World War II.

Table of contents
1 The Beginning of WWII
2 Western Europe, 1940
3 The War at Sea
4 The North African Desert
5 Britain Goes on the Offensive
6 Greek Interlude and Crete
7 Iraq, Syria and Persia
8 Rommel Arrives
9 To and Fro in the Western Desert
10 Operation Torch and El Alamein
11 Battle for Tunisia
12 Invasion of Sicily
13 Surrender of Italy
14 The Winter Line and Monte Cassino
15 Anzio and Rome
16 The Gothic Line and Victory in Italy
17 Greek Civil War
18 Operation Overlord
19 Breakout from Normandy
20 Riveira Invasion
21 Operation Market Garden
22 Battle of the Bulge
23 Crossing the Rhine and Final Surrender
24 Combined Bomber Offensive
25 Disaster in Malaya and Singapore
26 Forced Out of Burma
27 Forgotten Army
28 Kohima and Imphal
29 Burma Retaken
30 Okinawa and Japan
31 The Air War
32 Elite Forces
33 Military Structures
34 Technology
35 See also

The Beginning of WWII

In 1939 Nazi Germany proposed to shift Poland's eastern borders. Having a British and French guarantee of protection, the Polish government refused. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Immediately upon the outbreak of war, the Army began the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force to France to aid in its defence. At first only regular troops from the pre-war Army made up its numbers. In 1940, however, men of the Territorial Army divisions being mobilised in the UK were sent over. In the end, the BEF had I, II and III Corps under its command, controlling some 14 divisions. The RAF also sent significant forces over to France at the start of hostilities. Some were Army cooperation squadrons to help with matters like reconnsaissance and artillery spotting for the Army. Others were squadrons from Fighter Command flying the Hawker Hurricane. Separately, the Advanced Air Striking Force was sent over by Bomber Command. It comprised squadrons flying the shorter ranged machines in the Command, which did not have the range to reach Germany from the UK. These were mainly the horribly out of date Fairey Battle.

The Royal Navy began to impose a naval blockade on Germany, which was of limited success as Germany was already obtaining most of its critical supplies by land routes. The German Navy also began to attack British shipping with surface warships and U-boats. The Royal Air Force began to conduct small bombing raids. However no major offensive operations were carried out. This period of the war became known as the Phony War.

One notable success during the Phony War was the sinking of the German cruiser Graf Spee by a force under Commodore Henry Harwood in December 1939.

Western Europe, 1940

The Battle of France

On 10 May the Phony War ended with a sweeping German invasion Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, that bypassed French fortifications along the Maginot Line. After overrunning these countries Germany turned against France, entering the country through the Ardennes on 13 May - the French had made the fatal mistake of leaving this area almost totally undefended, believing its terrain to be impassible for tanks. Most Allied forces were in Flanders, anticipating a re-run of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, and were cut off from the French heartland. As a result of this, and also the superior German communications, the Battle of France was shorter than virtually all prewar Allied thought could have conceived. It lasted six weeks, after which France surrendered. In order to further the humiliation of the French people, Hitler arranged for the surrender document to be signed in the same railway coach where the German surrender had been signed in 1918. The fall of France left Britain and its Empire to stand alone.

During the Battle of France, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, correctly believing that the country no longer trusted him to conduct the war. He was replaced by Winston Churchill, who had opposed negotiation with Hitler all along.


Fortunately for Britain, much of its army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirk. Although the Royal Navy still had command of the seas, the warships were unable to get close enough to the beaches to pick up troops. At the request of the government, thousands of small boats from the coast of Britain were therefore sailed to Dunkirk by their civilian masters, and ferried the troops from the beaches to the waiting warships, often under air attack or bombardment. In total, 330,000 troops were pulled off the beaches, of which 230,000 were British. However almost all of the army's heavy equipment had been abandoned in France - many soldiers were unable to bring even their rifles back with them.

See Battle of Dunkirk for more detail.

The Battle of Britain

After the fall of France, Hitler offered to discuss peace terms with Britain, but this offer was rejected by Churchill.

The Germans began to make preparations for a possible invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion (Unternehmen Seel÷we). Air superiority was considered an essential pre-requisite to invasion, and the Luftwaffe began operations intended to destroy the Royal Air Force. This became known as the Battle of Britain. Initially the Luftwaffe sought to destroy the RAF by bombing their ground installations and drawing their fighters into airborne combat. In the Autumn of 1940 the Luftwaffe switched to bombing major British cities, intending to demoralize the British people and destroy British industry. Neither was successful. That bombing campaign is commonly known as The Blitz. Towards the end of 1940 it became clear to German planners that the RAF defences were not being worn down, and plans for the invasion were called off.

The Battle of Britain marked a turning point of the war. It ensured the survival of an independent Britain, without which the course of the war would have been very different. It also represented the first failure of the German war machine. Possibly most importantly world opinion began to undergo a shift. Those in the United States who previously believed that Britain had no chance of victory began to change their minds.

Churchill famously honoured the RAF who fought the battle saying that "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few". The pilots who fought the battle were referred to as "The Few" from then on.

The War at Sea

At the start of the war the British and French believed their Navies to be more than a match for the German Navy, even in alliance with the Italian, and expected to have command of the oceans. They immediately began a blockade of German trade, which although mainly successful had little effect on German industry. The German Navy began to attack British shipping with both surface ships and U-boats. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee was sunk in the Battle of the River Plate.

When France fell the position changed drasticly. A combination of the French, German and Italian navies could potentially deny Britain command of the Atlantic and starve her into submission. Unable to discover whether the terms of the French surrender would permit Germany the use of French warships, it was decided that their use must be denied to the enemy. Those that had taken refuge in British ports were simply taken over (many volunteered to join the British). Units of the Royal Navy were dispatched to Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa to demand that the bulk of the French fleet which was there surrender to the British or face destruction. After hours of negotiation the French ships declined to surrender and were attacked. Most were destroyed, but several escaped. The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result.

The North African Desert

See also: Italian military history of World War II

On September 13, 1940, the Italian Tenth Army crossed the border from the Italian colony of Libya into Egypt, where British troops were stationed to protect the Suez Canal. The initial Italian assault carried through to Sidi Barrani, approximately 95km inside the Egyptian border. The Italians then began to entrench themselves. At this time there were only 30,000 British available to defend against 250,000 Italian troops. The Italian decision to halt the advance is generally credited to them being unaware of the British strength, and the activity of Royal Navy forces operating in the Mediterranean to interfere with Italian supply lines. There were Royal Navy seaports at Alexandria, Haifa, and Port Said. Following the halt of the Italian Tenth Army, the British would use the Western Desert Force's Jock columns to harass their lines in Egypt.

Britain Goes on the Offensive

On November 11 1940, the Royal Navy made an attack on Taranto harbour in Italy with a squadron of Fairey Swordfish launched from the carrier HMS Illustrious. The intention was to remove the Italian fleet as a threat to British supply lines in the Mediterranean. The raid at Taranto left three Italian battleships crippled or destroyed; two British aircraft were shot down. It provided at least some of the inspiration for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Then, on December 8, Operation Compass began. Planned as an extended raid, a force of British, Indian and Australian troops succeeded in cutting off the Italian troops. Pressing their advantage home, General O'Connor pressed the attack forward and succeeded in reaching El Agheila (an advance of 500 miles) and capturing tens of thousands of enemy. The Italian army was virtually destroyed, and it seemed that the Italians would be swept out of Libya. However at the crucial moment Churchill ordered that the advance be stopped and troops dispatched to defend Greece. Weeks later the first German troops were arriving in North Africa to reinforce the Italians.

Greek Interlude and Crete

The Italians attacked Greece from Albania in late 1940. Mussolini's forces, as often the case in WWII had bitten off more than they could chew. Not only did the Greeks stop the attack, they forced the Italians back. Eventually, in the spring of 1941, the Germans intervened in Greece. They also invaded Yugoslavia concurrently.

The Greeks had been reluctant to acquiese to British ground forces into the country, because Britain could not spare enough forces to be guaranteed to forestall a German attack. They had, however, accepted aid from the RAF in their war with the Italians in Albania. The trigger for British forces moving to Greece in large numbers was the entry of German forces into Bulgaria. That made it clear that German intent was to invade Greece in the short term.

British forces took position on a defensive line running north west to south east across the northern part of Greece. However, there were critical weaknesses in the defences. The Greek forces in the area were further forward than the British forces, and the Greek Government refused British advice to withdraw to a common line. The Greek forces were thus defeated in detail. There was also a large gap between the left flank of British forces and the right flank of the Greek forces in Albania. That was also exploited to the full by the Germans.

After being thrown off the mainland of Greece, British forces retreated to Crete. There, the Germans again exploited weaknesses in the defences with a very bold invasion plan. In the largest, and last German airborne assault, paratroops landed at a number of points on the island. In all but one location, they were cut off and destroyed, and the follow-on seaborne forces were dispersed by the Royal Navy. However, that one location was enough, and reinforcements were flown in to the point where the Germans were strong enough to break out and take the rest of the island.

Iraq, Syria and Persia

In late 1941, too add to British troubles in the area, a rebellion broke out in Iraq. A pro-German ruler took power in the coup and ordered British forces out of Iraq. There were two main British bases in Iraq, around Basra and at Habbaniya north east of Baghdad. Basra was too well defended for the Iraqis to consider taking. However, Habbaniya was a poorly defended air base, situated in the middle of enemy territory. It had no regular air forces, being only a training centre. Nonetheless, the RAF personnel at the base converted as many of the training aircraft as possible to carry weapons.

When Iraqi forces came to Habbaniya, they surrounded the base, and gave warning that any military activity would be considered as hostile, leading to an attack. However, the RAF training aircraft took off and bombed the Iraqi forces. Besiegers were quickly turned into besieged and forced away from the base. Columns then set out from Habbaniya and Basra to capture Baghdad, and put an end to the rebellion. They succeeded at relatively low cost, but there was a disturbing development during the campaign.

A Luftwaffe aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on Baghdad. The nearest Axis bases were on Rhodes, and so the aircraft had to stage through somewhere to be able to get to Iraq. The only possible place was Vichy Syria. This overtly hostile action could not be tolerated. Consequently, after victory in Iraq, British forces invaded Syria and Lebanon, to remove the Vichy officials from power there. Vigorous resistance was put up by the French against British and Australian forces moving into Lebanon from Palestine. However, pressure there eventually told, and when this combined with an advance on Damascus from Iraq, the French surrendered.

The final major military operation in the war in the Middle East took place shortly thereafter. The Soviet Union desparately needed supplies for its war against Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Archangel, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from American to Vladivostock in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, and the obvious answer was to go through Persia. The Shah of Persia was somewhat pro-German, and so would not allow this. Consequently, British and Soviet forces invaded and occupied Persia. The Shah was deposed, and his son put on the throne in his place.

Rommel Arrives

The arrival of the German Afrika Korps under General Rommel reversed the initiative. With daring tactical moves Rommel succeeded in pushing the Commonwealth forces back to El Alamein, the last defensible position before the vital port of Alexandria. However the Germans failed to capture the port of Tobruk, thanks to the gallant resistance of the Australian garrison who resisted the German siege. At the First Battle of El Alamein the Eight Army succeeded in stopping German advance, aided by the difficulty of supplying the Afrika Korps across the Mediterranean under British naval attack.

To and Fro in the Western Desert

Operation Torch and El Alamein

Battle for Tunisia

Invasion of Sicily

Surrender of Italy

The Winter Line and Monte Cassino

Anzio and Rome

The Gothic Line and Victory in Italy

Greek Civil War

A little-known British military operation took place in Greece in late 1944 and early 1945. After being ignominiously ejected from Greece by the Germans in 1941, and bundled out of the Aegean again in 1943 in the aftermath of an attempt to take advantage of the Italian surrender by occupying the Dodecannese Islands, British forces returned to Greece in strength in the autumn of 1944.

Operations against the Germans themselves were confined strictly to harrassment of retreating forces. The retreat had been forced upon the Germans by the approach of Soviet forces in the Balkans threatening to cut the lines of communication to Greece. The UK simply could not spare enough troops from the Italian, North-Western Europe and Burmese operations to do any more.

In the aftermath of the German withdrawal, and with the approach of Soviet forces, Greek communist guerillas staged an attempted coup. They were defeated, but a vicious conflict developed. The Greek King eventually acceeded to a regency by a prominent Greek Archbishop for an interim period until the fallout of the war could be sorted out. That, combined with the military fact of British successes against them forced the guerillas to sue for a ceasefire.

Operation Overlord

Breakout from Normandy

Riveira Invasion

Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France in August 1944 was an almost entirely American affair. However, British naval forces did take part in bombardment duties and air protection of the beachhead. The only British land forces to take part were the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. They landed without much opposition, and rapidly took their objectives. The quick success of the operation allowed them to be withdrawn from the line and redeployed to Greece where they were urgently needed to help quell a civil war.

Operation Market Garden

Battle of the Bulge

Crossing the Rhine and Final Surrender

Combined Bomber Offensive

Disaster in Malaya and Singapore

The outbreak of war in the Far East found the United Kingdom critically overstretched. British forces in the area were weak in almost all arms.

The first major setback to British power in the region was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on 10 December 1941 by Japanese land-based planes. The sinking was triply significant. It represented the loss of the last Allied capital ships in the Pacific left after Pearl Harbor, the only Allied modern or 'fast' battleship to be sunk in the entire war and the first time that a battleship had been sunk by enemy aicraft whilst underway at sea.

Reverses in the air and on the ground soon followed. Japanese forces had naval superiority, and they used it to make outflanking amphibious landings as they advanced down the Malayan penninsula towards Singapore. Japanese assaults from the ground and air soon made the forward landing grounds that much of the RAF's only real hope of defending Singapore from the air rested upon untenable. The RAF took a toll of Japanese forces, but there were never enough aircraft to do anything more than delay the inevitable.

The Army was larger in numbers then the other services, but equally ill-prepared. Japanese tactics of outflanking strongpoints through the jungle were devastating, and the British and Indian forces steadily gave ground. Singapore was critically unprepared for the assault that came in early 1942. It had been neglected during the famine years for defence of the 1930s. It had then suffered during the war as British efforts were focussed nearer to home at defeating Germany and Italy. To add to the military neglect in the build-up the attack, the colony was run by a Governor who refused to allow what military preparations could be made during the time in between the Japaness attack and the surrender. The Governor did not want to 'upset' the civilian population.

The inevitable happened in February 1942. In the largest military surrender in British history, the entire garrison of Singapore capitulated. The civilian population then found out the real meaning of being 'upset' under the brutal rule of the Japanese. Some small air forces escaped to Sumatra and Java, but those islands fell to the Japanese too within a short time. British forces were forced back to India and Ceylon.

Forced Out of Burma

Forgotten Army

Kohima and Imphal

Burma Retaken

Okinawa and Japan

In their final actions of the war, substantial British naval forces took part in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, and the final naval strikes on Japan. The British Pacific Fleet operated as a separate unit from the American task forces in the Okinawa operation. Its job was to strike at airfields on the chain of islands between Formosa and Okinawa, in order to prevent the Japanese reinforcing the defences of Okinawa from that direction. The British forces were built around four large fleet carriers. They could not stay on station as long as the American forces, since the Royal Navy was somewhat poorer in its fleet train. However, a significant contribution to the success of the invasion was made by British forces.

During the final strikes against Japan, British forces operated as an integral part of the American task force, making up the fourth of the four task groups within it. However, some targets were off limits to British forces. During the final attacks on Japanese naval forces at Kure, British forces were purposely assigned targets elsewhere. The United States Navy wanted and got its final revenge for Pearl Harbor. Even with these restrictions, British forces still managed to find and sink a Japanese aircraft carrier.

The final surrender of Japan came at a moment when British forces had had to be drastically reduced in the area. They were withdrawing back to base to prepare for Operation Olympic, the first part of the massive invasion of Japan. However, there was still a small British naval force present for the surrender formalities.

The Air War


Elite Forces

Military Structures


See also