Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II

The United Kingdom, along with France, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 after the German invasion of Poland. Japan entered the war by attacking Britain's colonies in Asia. The axis powers were defeated by an alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union, the British Empire and other allies in 1945.


Pre-war tensions

Though Britain had increased military spending prior to 1939, because of the threat of Nazi Germany, its forces were still weak by comparison - especially the army. Only the Royal Navy, was of a greater strength than their German counterpart.

The Beginning of the War

On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany, 24 hours after Britain had issued an ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from Poland.

The army immediately began despatching the British Expeditionary Force to help defend France. 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. In the end, the BEF had I, II and III Corps under its command, controlling some 14 divisions. The Royal Air Force also sent significant forces to France at the start of hostilities. Some were Army cooperation squadrons to help with matters like reconnaissance for the Army. Others were Hawker Hurricane squadrons from Fighter Command. Separately, Bomber Command sent the Advanced Air Striking Force, comprised of squadrons flying the Fairey Battle and other machines that did not have the range to reach Germany.

During the Phony War, the RAF carried out small bombing raids and the Royal Navy imposed a blockade on Germany.

Western Europe, 1940

The Battle of France

On 10 May the Phony War ended with a sweeping German invasion of the Benelux. German troops entered France through the Ardennes on 13 May. 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 superior German communications, the Battle of France was shorter than virtually all prewar Allied thought could have conceived, with France surrendering after six weeks. Britain and its Empire were left to stand alone.

During the Battle of France, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, to be replaced by Winston Churchill, who had opposed negotiation with Hitler all along.


Main article: Battle of Dunkirk

Fortunately for Britain, much of its army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirk. In total, 330,000 troops were pulled off the beaches, of which 230,000 were British. However almost all the army's heavy equipment had been abandoned in France — many soldiers were unable to bring even their rifles.

The Battle of Britain

Main article: Battle of Britain

In preparation for an invasion, the Luftwaffe began operations to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). Initially the Luftwaffe sought to bomb RAF ground installations and draw their fighters into airborne combat. In the Autumn of 1940, Hitler, having grown impatient with the failure to destroy the RAF, ordered a switch to bombing major British cities. Known as The Blitz, this was intended to demoralise the British people and destroy British industry. 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. It ensured the survival of an independent Britain and represented the first failure of the German war machine.

The War at Sea

Opening Moves

At the start of the war the British and French expected to have command of the seas, as they believed their navies were superior to those of Germany and Italy. The British and French immediately began a blockade of Germany, which had little effect on German industry. The German Navy began to attack British shipping with both surface ships and U-boats, sinking the S. S. Athenia within hours of the declaration of war. The German Panzerschiff (a heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee was sunk in the Battle of the River Plate.

Norwegian Campaign

Main article: Norwegian Campaign

Norway was vital for Germany and Britain because of the great iron ore deposits in northern Sweden. Convinced that Britain might make a move against Norway to stop the flow of ore from Narvik, Hitler ordered a strike.

The Germans succeeded in their mission, landing a large force at the vital strategic points of Norway. However, the landings proved expensive for the Germans who lost three cruisers.

British land forces were quickly sent to Norway, landing in the centre at Ĺndalsnes and in the north of the country at Narvik. The south was already denied by German airpower.

Further naval operations developed at Narvik, where German forces were well outside the range of the Luftwaffe and were therefore not as secure as further south. Two naval battles happened in April at Narvik. In the first a British destroyer flotilla with five destroyers attacked four German destroyers and escaped, with both sides losing two ships. In the second battle, three days later, a more powerful group of British destroyers and a battleship engaged the Germans.

In central Norway, Royal Navy aircraft carriers and RAF fighter squadrons could not keep the established bases secure. Central Norway was thus evacuated. In the north the Germans were driven out of Narvik after they had captured it. However, as Luftwaffe aircraft came into range, it was found again impossible to sustain bases in the face of that threat. British forces in Narvik were withdrawn as well.

Fall of France

When France fell the position changed drastically. 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). See below for details of how the British neutralised the French Mediterranean Fleet.

Battle of the Atlantic

Main article see Second Battle of the Atlantic

First Happy Time

With the fall of France, ports such as Brest were quickly turned into large submarine bases from which British trade could be attacked. This resulted in a huge rise in sinkings of British shipping. The period between the fall of France and the British containment of the threat was referred to as the first happy time by the U Boat commanders.

By 1941 the United States was taking an increasing part in the war. British forces had occupied Iceland when Denmark fell to the Germans in 1940, the US was persuaded to provide forces to relieve British troops on the island. American warships began escorting convoys to Iceland, and had several hostile encounters with U-boats. The United States Navy also helped escort the main Atlantic convoys.

More American help came in the form of the destroyers for bases agreement. Fifty old American destroyers were handed over to the Royal Navy in exchange for 99 year leases on certain British bases in the western hemisphere.

Second Happy Time

The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the United States had an immediate effect on the campaign against the U Boats, with German ships conducting a campaign against American coastal traffic. The British paradoxically benefited from the attacks on American coastal shipping as a large decrease in attacks on Atlantic convoy ships occurred. German sailors called this the "second happy time".

Success Against the U Boats

The institution of an interlocking convoy system on the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea in mid-1942 created an enormous drop in attacks in those areas. Attention shifted back to the Atlantic convoys. Matters were serious, but not critical throughout much of 1942.

The winter weather provided a respite in early 1943, but in the spring large wolf packs of U-boats attacked convoys and scored big successes without taking large losses in return. However, in May 1943 a sudden turnaround happened. Two convoys were attacked by large wolf packs and suffered losses. Yet unlike earlier in the year the attacking submarines were also mauled. After those battles merchant ship losses plummeted and U-boat losses rocketed, forcing Dönitz to withdraw his forces from the Atlantic. They were never again to pose the same threat.

What had changed was a sudden convergence of technologies. The large gap in the middle of the Atlantic that had been unreachable by aircraft was closed by long range B-24 Liberator aircraft. Centimetric radar came into service, greatly improving detection and nullifying German radar warning equipment. The introduction of the Leigh Light enabled accurate attacks on U-boats re-charging their batteries on the surface at night. With convoys securely protected there were enough resources to allow escort carrier groups to aggressively hunt U-boats.

Arctic Convoys

Main article see Arctic convoys of World War II

The Arctic convoys travelled from the USA and the United Kingdom to the northern ports of the USSR - Archangel and Murmansk.

85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. The Germans lost several vessels, including one battlecruiser and at least 30 U-boats, as well as a large number of aircraft. The material significance of the supplies was probably not as great as the symbolic value - hence the continuation, at Stalin's insistence, of these convoys long after the Russians had turned the German land offensive.

The Mediterranean

Main article Battle of the Mediterranean

Outside of the Pacific War battles, the Mediterranean saw the largest conventional naval warfare during WWII. British forces struggled to supply the island fortress of Malta, fighting through several heavily escorted convoys. Malta took a heavy toll on Axis convoys supplying Rommel's forces in Africa. There were also several skirmishes between British and Italian forces.

The French Mediterranean Fleet

With the surrender of France to the Germans in 1940 the French navy in the Mediterranean was a threat to the Royal Navy so it was imperative for the British that this threat was neutralised. The French squadron at Alexandria was dealt with via negotiations, mainly because the two commanders, Admirals Godfroy and Cunningham, were on good personal terms. The bulk of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa was destroyed on July 3 1940 by the British after refusing to surrender. The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result. See destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.

Battle of Taranto

On November 11 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto.

Battle of Matapan

The Battle of Cape Matapan was a decisive Allied victory, fought off the Peloponnesus coast of Greece from March 27 to March 29, 1941 in which British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy forces under the command of the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham intercepted those of the Italian Regia Marina, under Admiral Angelo Iachino. The Allies sank the heavy cruisers Fiume, Zara and Pola and the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosue Carducci, and damaged the battleship Vittorio Veneto. The British lost one torpedo plane and suffered light damage to some ships.


The evacuation of the British Army after their defeat by German paratroops in the Battle of Crete cost the Royal Navy a number of ships. During the evacuation Admiral Cunningham was determined that the "navy must not let the army down", when army generals feared he would lose too many ships Cunningham said that "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition".


Malta lies in the middle of the Mediterranean south of Italy. It was in the perfect strategic position to interdict Axis supplies destined for north Africa. For a time it looked as if Malta would be starved into submission by the use of Axis aircraft flying from bases in Italy. The turning point in the siege came in August 1942, when the British sent a very heavily defended convoy codenamed Operation Pedestal. Once Malta had been supplied with Spitfire fighters carried to the Island by HMS Furious during Operation Pedestal, these fighters along with the other vital supplies of materiel lifted the siege of Malta. The British re-established a creditable air garrison on the island. With the aid of Ultra Malta garrison was able to decimate the Axis supplies to North Africa immediately before the Second Battle of El Alamein. For the fortitude and courage of the Maltese during the seige, Malta was awarded the George Cross.

Great Invasions

Aegean Sweep

Operation Overlord and the Normandy Landings

The invasion of Normandy was the greatest amphibious assault ever. Over 1,000 fighting ships and some 5,000 other ships were involved. The sheer number of vessels involved meant that nearly all of the major ports of the United Kingdom were at capacity immediately preceding the assault.

The five assault divisions crossed the channel in five great assault groups. There were two task forces, the Anglo-Canadian Eastern Task Force and the American Western Task Force. Coastal Command secured the western flank of the invasion route against interference by German U Boats from the western French ports. The surface forces assisted by protected the assault convoys from the small German surface forces in the area. Overlord saw an enormous minesweeping operation, with hundreds of minesweepers clearing and maintaining channels. The bombardment forces were on an enormous scale, with eight battleships taking part in the assault. The formidable defences of the Atlantic Wall were difficult to contend with, and many duels between the heavy ships and shore batteries were fought during the invasion.

On the whole the assault went well, although disaster came nearest to occurring at the American Omaha Beach. There the naval forces provided crucial backup for the assaulting forces, with destroyers coming in very close to the beach the blast the German defences. British losses to enemy attack both during the initial assault and the building of the bridgehead were comparatively small. Virtually no ships were sunk by German naval surface forces as this force was largely destroyed prior to the invasion.

Two of the ports used by the German light forces were heavily bombed by the Allied air forces. The larger German ships based in France, three destroyers from Bordeaux were defeated in a destroyer action well to the west of the main assault area. Larger problems were caused by U-boats and especially mines, but the U-boats were hunted down and the mines swept effectively enough to make the invasion a success.

The East

Indian Ocean Disaster

Though the Indian Ocean was a backwater during WWII, there were several vital operations in that area. British convoys running through the western Indian Ocean were vital for supplying forces fighting Rommel. They faced a small but consistent submarine threat from both German and Japanese boats. Tankers sailing from the oil terminals of Persia also had to run the same gauntlet.

The major operations in that Indian Ocean took place in early 1942 and 1944.

British forces in the Far East were reinforced by HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in December 1941. However, three days into the war those two ships were sunk by Japanese aircraft, marking the only modern Allied battleship sunk during the entire war and the first time that a battleship at sea and free to manoeuvre had been sunk by air attack.

More British forces came into the area in 1942. On paper the fleet looked impressive, boasting five battleships and three aircraft carriers. However four of the battleships were old and obsolete and one of the aircraft carriers was small and virtually useless in a fleet action. Following successes over American forces in the Pacific, the Japanese carrier forces made their one and only foray into the Indian Ocean in April 1942. Nagumo took the main force after the British fleet and a subsidiary raid was made on shipping in the Bay of Bengal. During those attacks two British heavy cruisers, an aircraft carrier - the obsolete HMS Hermes and a destroyer were sunk and large numbers of merchant ships were damaged or sunk.

Indian Ocean Retreat

Following those attacks, the British fleet retreated to Kilindini in east Africa, as their more forward fleet anchorages could not be adequately protected from Japanese attack. The fleet in the Indian Ocean was then gradually reduced to little more than a convoy escort force as other commitments called for the more powerful ships.

One exception was Operation Ironclad, a campaign launched when it was feared that Vichy French Madagascar might fall into Japanese hands, and be used as a submarine base. Such a blow would have been devastating to British lines of communication to the Far East and Middle East, but the Japanese never contemplated it. The French resisted more than expected, and more operations were need to capture the island, but it did eventually fall.

Indian Ocean Strike

It was only after the war in Europe was coming to an end that large British forces were despatched to the Indian Ocean again after the neutralisation of the German fleet in late 1943 and early 1944. The success of Operation Overlord in June meant even more craft from the Home Fleet could be sent, including precious amphibious assault shipping.

During late 1944, as more British aircraft carriers came into the area a series of strikes were flown against oil targets in Sumatra to prepare British carriers for the upcoming operations in the Pacific. For the first attack, the United States lent the USS Saratoga. The oil installations were heavily damaged by the attacks, aggravating the Japanese fuel shortages due to the American blockade. The final attack was flown as the carriers were heading for Sydney to become the British Pacific Fleet.

After the departure of the main battle forces the Indian Ocean was left with escort carriers and older battleships as the mainstay of its naval forces. Nevertheless, during those months important operations were launched in the recapture of Burma, including landings on Ramree and Akyab and near Rangoon.

Blockade of Japan

British forces consistently played a secondary role to American forces in the strangling of Japan's trade, albeit they still did have a significant role. The earliest successes were gained by mine laying. The Japanese minesweeping capability was never great, and when confronted with new types of mines they did not adapt quickly. Japanese shipping was driven from the Burmese coast using this type of warfare.

British submarines also operated against Japanese shipping, although later in the war. They were based in Ceylon, Freemantle and finally the Philippines. A major success was the sinking of several Japanese cruisers

The North African Desert

See also: Italian military history of World War II

On 13 September 1940, the Italian Tenth Army crossed the border from the Italian colony of Libya into Egypt, where British troops were protecting the Suez Canal. The Italian assault carried through to Sidi Barrani, approximately 95 km inside Egypt. 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 used the Western Desert Force's Jock columns to harass their lines in Egypt.

Britain goes on the offensive

On 11 November 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto.

Then, on 8 December 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

See also: Balkans_Campaign and Battle of Crete

The Italians attacked Greece from Albania in late 1940. 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 acquiesce 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, which made clear the German intent to invade Greece.

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 exploited to the full by the Germans.

After being thrown off the Greek mainland, British forces retreated to Crete. There, the Germans again exploited weaknesses in the defences with a bold invasion plan. In the largest and last German airborne assault, paratroops landed at several 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, to 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, repelling them 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 desperately needed supplies for its war against Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from American to Vladivostok in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, 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 addition the well known campaigns in the western desert during 1940, a front was opened against the Italians in June 1940. That was around their colonies of Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea in east Africa.

As in Egypt, British forces were massively outnumbered by their Italian opponents. However, unlike Libya, Ethiopia was isolated from the Italian mainland, and thus cut off from resupply.

The first offensive moves of the campaign fell to the Italians. They attacked in three directions, into Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland. Only in the final case did they enjoy success. The British garrison in Somaliland was so outnumbered, and had little enough territory to defend that it had to be evacuated to Aden. In Sudan and Kenya the Italian penetration was little more than a few tens of miles.

After their offensives petered out the Italians, as in Egypt, adopted a passive attitude and waited for the inevitable British counterattack. Attention then shifted the naval sphere.

The Italians had a small squadron based at Asmara in Eritrea. This was a threat to the British convoys heading up the Red Sea. It consisted of a few destroyers and submarines. However, the squadron was not used aggressively and mostly acted as a fleet in being. As supplies of fuel decreased, its opportunities for action also decreased. The Italians made one major attempt to attack a convoy, and they were roundly defeated in doing so. Following that attack, most of the surface ships of the squadron were sunk, and the submarines that escaped travelled around the Cape of Good Hope to return to Italy.

British forces were thin on the ground in east Africa, and the two nations that made the greatest contribution to victory on land were South Africa and India. South Africa provided much needed airpower and troops from the Indian Army made up the mainstay of the British ground forces. In the end, two Indian divisions saw combat in Ethiopia.

An important aspect of the campaign to retake Ethiopia was irregular forces. Major Orde Wingate, later to gain fame in Burma with the Chindits was a major mover behind the Ethiopian 'patriots' as they were referred to by the British. The irregulars, formed into the Gideon Force, disrupted Italian supply lines and provided vital intelligence to British forces.

The regular push to take Ethiopia began once reinforcements arrived from Egypt. The arrival of the first Australian division had released Indian 4th Infantry Division to be sent to the area. It quickly took the offensive from Sudan, and was supported by a thrust from Kenya. An amphibious assault was made on British Somalialand, staged from Aden. The three thrusts converged on the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, which fell early in 1941. The Italians made a final stand around the town of Golkar, before they were finally defeated in the middle of 1941.

Rommel Arrives

The arrival of the German Afrika Korps under General Rommel reversed the initiative. Rommel's first offensive saw the British forces thrown out of Cyrenaica and back into Egypt. Rommel eventually halted at Sollum. However, the important port of Tobruk remained in British hands, with a largely Australian garrison. It withstood a siege for several months. After this first offensive by Rommel, initiative see-sawed between the two sides as each gained more supplies and troops.

To and fro in the Western Desert

After Rommel's first offensive, a reorganisation of British command took place. In November 1941 the Eighth Army was activated under command of Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham. Its first offensive failed disastrously as Rommel blunted the thrust. British operational doctrine was at fault through failing to use tanks effectively; a prerequisite for successful desert warfare. Cunningham was relived of command and Major General Neil Ritchie was put in his place. However, a second British offensive in late 1941 turned Rommel's flank and lead to the relief of Tobruk. Again Cyrenaica fell into British hands, this time the advance went as far as El Agheila. However outside events again intervened to impede British efforts; as the British attack reached El Agheila Japan attacked in the Far East. That meant that reinforcements that had been destined for the Middle East went elsewhere. This was to have disastrous effects.

Rommel took the offensive again in January 1942. He had been instructed by his high command to only conduct a limited offensive against British positions. However, he disobeyed orders and exploited the British collapse. In this he laid the seeds of his own downfall.

An operation had been planned to take Malta, and thus reduce its strangulation of Rommel's supply lines. However, with his new offensive, Rommel was consuming materiél meant for the Malta attack. It came down to a choice of attacking Malta or supporting Rommel and Rommel's attack won out. At the time Malta seemed neutralised, but this mistake was to come to haunt the Axis later.

Confusion in British ranks was horrendous as attempts to shore up the position failed time and again. Rommel not only drove the British out of Libya, and somewhat into Egypt, he pushed deep into the protectorate. Tobruk fell quickly, and there was no repeat of the epic siege that Rommel's last advance had produced. A prepared defensive line at Mersa Matruh was out flanked, and disaster beckoned. Ritchie was dismissed as Eight Army commander and Auchinlek, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, came forward to take command of it himself. After Matruh there was only one more defensive position before Cairo itself; El Alamein.

Auchinlek managed to stop Rommel's offensive with the First Battle of El Alamein.

A new command team arrived in the Middle East, with Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery assuming command of the Eighth Army. Rommel tried to break through again during the Battle of Alam Halfa, but his thrust was stopped. Montgomery then began preparations for a great breakthrough offensive that would result in the pursuit of Axis forces all the way to Tunisia.

Operation Torch and El Alamein

8 November 1942 saw the first great amphibious assault of WWII. In Operation Torch, an Anglo-American force landed on the shores of Algeria and Morocco. However, even in Algeria despite having a large British content the allies maintained the illusion that this was an American operation in order to reduce possible resistance by the French.

After the attack by Force H on the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in 1940, anti-British feeling ran high among the French. This had been exacerbated by later British operations against Vichy-controlled territories at Dakar, Syria and Lebanon, and the invasion of Madagascar. It was feared that any British attack on French soil would lead to prolonged resistance. Ironically, the attack which saw the greatest resistance was that wholly-American landing in Morocco. A full scale naval battle was fought between French and American ships, and ground fighting was also heavy.

The resistance did not last long. The French surrendered and then shortly afterwards joined the Allied cause. One of the main reasons for quick switch of sides was because the Germans had moved into unoccupied France, ending the Vichy regime, shortly after the north African garrisons had surrendered.

Once resistance in Algeria and Morocco was over, the campaign became a race. The Germans were pouring men and supplies into Tunisia, and the Allies were trying to get sufficient troops into the country quickly enough to stop them before the need for a full scale campaign to drive them out occurred.

At the same time as Torch, the Second Battle of El Alamein was being fought in Egypt. The new commander of the Eighth Army, Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery, had the opportunity to conclusively defeat the Panzerarmee Afrika under Erwin Rommel, since Rommel was at the end of enormously stretched supply lines, the British were close to their supply bases, and Rommel was about to be attacked from the rear by Torch.

The Second Battle of El Alamein saw enormous use made of artillery. Rommel's forces had laid enormous amounts of mines in the desert, and the terrain of the area prevented his position being outflanked, and British naval forces were not powerful enough to land a significant force directly behind Rommel to cut his supply lines directly at the same time as Operation Torch. Consequently, the German lines had to be attacked directly. However, that did not mean that Montgomery did not try to use feint and deception in the battle. Dummy tanks and other deceptions were used liberally to try to fool the Germans where the stroke would fall.

The main attack went in, but it was turned back by the extensive minefields. Montgomery then shifted the axis of advance to another point to throw the Germans off balance. What had formerly been a spoiling attack was developed into the new major thrust. Through a grinding battle of attrition, the Germans were thrown back.

After El Alamein, Rommel's forces were pursued through the western desert for the last time. Cyrenaica was retaken from Axis forces, and then Tripolitania was won for the first time. Rommel's forces, apart from small rearguard actions to hold up Montgomery's men, did not turn and fight again until they were within the Mareth Line defences of southern Tunisia.

Battle for Tunisia

Main article: Tunisia Campaign

As British forces swept west through Libya and Anglo-American forces closed in from Algeria, the Axis began to pour reinforcements into Tunisia. A new command under Colonel General Jurgen von Arnim was set up. von Arnim was a confirmed enemy of Rommel, and so German command relations did not get off to a good start.

Rommel turned to face Montgomery's forces who had caught up with the Panzerarmee Afrika at last at the Mareth Line. The Mareth Line was a series of old French border defences against Italian forces from Libya. Rommel took them over and improved them greatly. It took a major effort for British forces to break through. However, by this time Rommel had left Africa never to return.

It was decided that First Army should make the main thrust to destroy Axis formations in Africa. II Corps was moved from the south to north of the front, and the French XIX Corps took up station on the right wing of First Army. Eighth Army was to make a subsidiary thrust along the coast to pin down Axis forces.

The final offensive began at the end of March 1943, and by May, Axis forces had surrendered. 250,000 men were taken prisoner, a number comparable to battle of Stalingrad.

The Italian Campaign

Invasion of Sicily

Sicily was invaded on 19 July 1943. The operation named Operation Husky was directed from Malta. British forces attacked on the eastern flank of the landing, with Eighth Army's XXX Corps coming ashore at Cape Passero and XIII Corps at Syracuse. The Army's job was to advance up the east coast of Sicily. Originally British forces were to have the main role in the attack on the island but, when their advance slowed, the US Seventh Army on the west side of the island swept around the enemy flank instead.

Eighth Army eventually battered its way past the German defences and enveloped Mount Etna; by this time the Germans and Italians were retreating. By 17 August all the Axis forces had evacuated the island, and Messina was captured that day.

Surrender of Italy

After operations in Sicily, the Italian Government was teetering on the brink of collapse. Mussolini was deposed, and peace feelers were put out to the Allies. However, the invasion of Italy still proceeded.

The first attacks were made directly across the Straits of Messina by Eighth Army in Operation Baytown on 3 September. V and XIII corps carried out that attack. Montgomery's forces leap-frogged up the toe of Italy over the next few days. A subsidiary landing, Operation Slapstick, was also made on 9 September at the Italian naval base of Taranto by the British 1st Airborne Division.

The main attack, Operation Avalanche, was delivered on the same day at Salerno. Salerno was chosen for the site of the attack because it was the furthest north that the single-engined fighters based in Sicily could realistically provide cover. Escort carriers also stood off shore to supplement the cover given by land-based aircraft. News of the Italian surrender was broadcast as the troop convoys were converging on Salerno. The Germans reacted extremely quickly to the surrender, disarming the Italian troops near their forces, and took up defensive positions near Salerno.

The landings at Salerno were made by the US Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark. It consisted of the US VI Corps landing on the right flank and the British X Corps landing on the left. Initial resistance was heavy, However heavy naval and air support combined with the approach of Eighth Army from the south eventually forced the Germans to withdraw. By 25 September a line from Naples to Bari was controlled by Allied forces.

Further relatively rapid advances continued over the next few weeks, but by the end of October, the front was stalled. The Germans had taken up extremely powerful defensive positions on the Winter Line. There the front would remain for the next six months.

The Winter Line and the Battle for Monte Cassino

The lynchpin of the Winter Line position was the town and monastery of Monte Cassino. The extremely powerful position dominated a key route to Rome and thus it had to be captured. British forces on the left flank of Fifth Army tried to cross the Garigliano River and were also driven back, as was a joint French-American attempt.

After the initial failure, the front was reorganised. V Corps was left on the Adriatic, but the rest of Eighth Army was moved over the Appennines to concentrate more forces to take Rome. The front of Fifth Army was thus considerably reduced. X Corps also moved to Eighth Army as the complicated arrangement of British forces under American command was removed. Several battles for Cassino followed, contested by Indian, New Zealand and Polish forces. In the end, Cassino lost its pivotal position as operations elsewhere on the front managed to turn its flanks. These included a brilliant demonstration of mountain warfare by the French Expeditionary Corps.

Anzio and Rome

Another major factor in the breaking of the winter line was the Anzio landings, an attempt to outflank the Winter Line by using the advantage of Allied sea power. The last great amphibious assault in the Mediterranean took place on 23 January 1944. The assaulting formations were controlled by the US VI Corps, but as with Salerno, there was a substantial British component to the assault force. The British 1st Division and British 2nd Commando Brigade comprised the left flank of the assault.

Again, like Salerno, there were serious problems with the landings. The commander, Lieutenant General John Lucas, did not exploit as aggressively as he might have done and was relieved for it. If Lucas had pushed too far, however, his forces could have been cut off by the Germans. The Germans came even closer than Salerno to breaking up the beachhead. They pushed through the defences to the last line before the sea. Again massive firepower on the Allied side saved the beachhead.

After the initial attack and after the German counterattack had been repulsed, the Anzio beachhead settled down to statemate. The attempt at outflanking the Winter Line had failed. It was May before a breakout from the beachhead could be attempted. By May, VI Corps had been reinforced to a strength of seven divisions. In Operation Diadem, a concerted attack was made at both Anzio and the Winter Line. The German defences finally cracked.

British forces were not well handled during Diadem. Oliver Leese, the commander of Eighth Army, made an enormous mistake by sending the heavily mechanised XIII Corps up the Liri Valley towards Rome. An enormous traffic jam developed. There was also controversy over the handling of American forces. VI Corps had originally been supposed to interpose itself on the route to Rome and cut off the German forces retreating from the Winter Line. However, Clark went for the glory of being the commander to take Rome, an Axis power capital, and ordered only a comparatively token force into a blocking position and ordered the rest of the Corps to head for Rome. The Germans brushed aside the blocking force and thus a major part of their formations escaped encirclement. A total of 25 division (roughly a tenth of the Wehrmacht) escaped due to Clark's negligence.

Rome fell on 4 June, and the pursuit continued well beyond the city, into northern Italy.

The Gothic Line and Victory in Italy

By the end of August, Allied forces had reached Pisa and Pesaro on each coast. As with the previous year, the advance then slowed greatly. The composition of the forces in Italy had changed again, with the withdrawal of the French forces to form the core of some of the assault forces for Operation Dragoon. The US IV Corps had been activated to replace the French in Fifth Army. Eighth Army was composed of V, X and XIII Corps of the British forces, Canadian I Corps and Polish II Corps. However, during this period, XIII Corps was temporarily placed under the command of Fifth Army.

Between August and December, the Eighth Army slowly progressed up the east coast. The Polish II Corps captured the important port-city of Ancona, thus significantly shortening the allied supply line. The original aim had been to break through in the Po Valley by the end of 1944, but that was nowhere near possible. December saw the line just south of Lake Commachio, with the Germans holding a salient to the west. Fifth Army was in the high passes of the Appennines.

After December, operations ground to a halt for the winter. The only major event that took place during this period was the removal of I Corps from the Italian front to reinforce Canadian 1st Army in France. The offensive was not renewed until April. The choice for the last offensive was whether the major blow should fall on the Fifth Army or the Eighth Army front. Eventually, it was settled that Eighth Army should make the major attack. A deception plan was hatched the convince the Germans that Fifth Army would launch the major attack, and a major logistical effort was required to move formations to their start lines.

The advance was again at first slow after the attack was launched on 2 April 1945. By 20 April, Bologna was in a salient held by the Germans, and Lake Comacchio was crossed by an amphibious attack. The Germans were close to breaking. In the next ten days, the German forces were either surrounded or pinned against the River Po, reduced in large part to scattered bands, bereft of heavy equipment. The progress in May was rapid, with American forces mopping up in the upper Po valley and capturing Genoa, Polish forces capturing Bologna and British forces clearing the lower Po and reaching the Yugoslav and Austrian borders.

Shortly before the main German surrender, German forces in Italy capitulated.

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 Dodecanese Islands, British forces returned to Greece in strength in the autumn of 1944.

Operations against the Germans themselves were confined strictly to harassment 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.

The Liberation of Europe

Operation Overlord

Main article Battle of Normandy

On 6 June 1944, the invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious assault in history, took place. It involved the landing of five assault divisions from the sea and three assault divisions by parachute and glider. Of those, one airborne and two seaborne divisions were British. The British airborne formation involved was 6th Airborne Division, with the British seaborne divisions being the 3rd Infantry Division and 50th Infantry Division. One further assault formation was from the British Empire; 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. The remaining divisions were provided by the United States.

The British Empire formations were assigned to the eastern end of the beachhead. The 6th Airborne Division landed to secure the eastern flank of the assault forces. The first Allied units in action were the glider-borne troops that assaulted Pegasus Bridge. The three Empire seaborne formations were landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Beyond the main formations, various smaller units went ashore. Prominent among those were the British Commandos.

The United Kingdom was the main base for the operation and provided the majority of the naval power for it. Nearly eighty percent of the bombarding and transporting warships were from the Royal Navy. Airpower for the operation was a more even divide. The United States contributed two air forces to the battle, the Eighth Air Force with strategic bombers, and the Ninth Air Force for tactical airpower. All the home commands of the RAF were involved in the operation. Coastal Command secured the English Channel against German naval vessels. Bomber Command had been engaged in reducing communications targets in France for several months to paralyse the movement of German reinforcements to the battle. It also directly supported the bombardment forces on the morning of the assault. Air Defence of Great Britain, the temporarily renamed Fighter Command, provided air superiority over the beachhead. The 2nd Tactical Air Force provided direct support to the Empire formations.

The operation was a success. Both tactical and strategical surprise were achieved, much to the amazement of the Allied commanders. The setback occurred at Omaha Beach where American forces coming ashore were pinned down for much of the day and suffered heavy casualties. However, they eventually won through.

The initial objectives for the day were not achieved, but a firm beachhead was established. It was gradually built up until offensive operations could begin in earnest. The first major success was the capture of Cherbourg. American forces pushed across the Contentin Peninsula and then up to the city, capturing it on 27 June. The port facilities there greatly eased the supply situation.

In the east, the first major British objective was Caen, an extremely tough nut to crack. The battle for the city turned into a long drawn-out slog. It eventually fell in July. By then, American forces were poised to break out of the Normandy beachhead and into France as a whole.

Breakout from Normandy

The American forces broke out in late July 1944, with Operation Cobra. American forces and British forces began trapping the German forces remaining in Normandy. Hitler ordered a counterattack on the seemingly vulnerable strip of territory that the US forces controlled on the Normandy coast, linking First and Third Armies, but appearances were deceiving. The attack drew German forces west when they should have been retreating east.

As American forces swept round to the south, British, Canadian and Polish forces pinned the Germans from the north. An enormous pocket formed, centred on the town of Falaise. An entire German Army was trapped there and largely destroyed. Following the battle, all Allied forces swept east. Paris fell at the end of August 1944, and by the end of September virtually the whole of France had been liberated.

However, logistical difficulties then caught up with the Allies. Because of thinly-stretched supply lines, the fast broad-front advance could not be sustained, grinding to a halt in the Lorraine and Belgium. Heated discussions then took placed over the next phase of Allied strategy.

Riviera Invasion

Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France in August 1944 was an almost entirely American affair, though British naval forces took 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 the civil war.

Operation Market Garden

Montgomery and Eisenhower had long been debating the merits of a broad front attack strategy versus concentrating power in one area and punching through German lines. Eisenhower favoured the former, and Montgomery the latter. However, in late 1944, logistic problems meant that the former was temporarily out of the question. Montgomery conceived Operation Market Garden to implement a narrow front strategy. The idea was to land airborne forces in Holland to take vital bridges over the country's various rivers. Armoured formation would then relieve the airborne forces and advance quickly into Germany.

American paratroops were dropped at intermediate points north of Allied lines, with the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade at the tip of the salient at Arnhem. The bridges were captured as expected, but the plan then began to run into serious trouble. The relief forces of Lieutenant General Horrock's XXX Corps had to advance up a single good road, and this began to cause congestion. The Germans reacted quickly to attack the road from both sides. Consequently the armoured forces took a great deal longer than expected to punch through to Arnhem.

The 1st Airborne Division held the Arnhem bridge for four days, and had a large force over the river for a total of nine days, before finally withdrawing in a daring night escape back over the Rhine. Of the more than 10,000 men who flew into the Arnhem operation, only about 2,000 returned. 1st Airborne Division was essentially finished as a fighting formation for the duration of the war, and Montgomery's plan had failed.

In the aftermath of the attack, the salient's flanks were expanded to complete the closing up to the Rhine in that section of the front.


Following Market Garden, the great port of Antwerp had been captured. However, it lay at the end of a long river estuary, and so it could not be used until its approaches were clear. The southern bank of the Scheldt was cleared by Canadian and Polish forces relatively quickly, but the thorny problem of the island of Walcheren remained.

Walcheren guarded the northern approaches to Antwerp and thus had to be stormed. The dikes and dunes were bombed at three locations, Westkappelle, Veere and Flushing, in order to inundate the island. In the last great amphibious operation of the war in Europe, British Commandos and Canadian troops captured the island in the late autumn of 1944, clearing the way for Antwerp to be opened and for the easement of the critical logistical problems the Allies were suffering.

Battle of the Bulge

Main article see: Battle of the Bulge

After December 1944, the strategy was to complete the conquest of the Rhineland and prepare to break into Germany proper en masse. However, what happened next completely caught the Allied staffs by surprise.

The Germans launched their last great offensive in December, resulting in the Battle of the Bulge. In an attempt to repeat their 1940 success, German forces were launched through the Ardennes. Again they encountered weak forces holding the front, as the American formations there were either new to the war or exhausted units on a quiet sector of the front rehabilitating. There were however also some important differences to 1940 which resulted in the German offensive ultimately failing. They were facing enormously strong airpower as unlike 1940 when they had ruled the skies. The opening of the offensive was timed for a spell of bad weather, aimed at removing the threat of the Allied airpower but, the weather cleared again relatively soon.

Most of the forces that took part in the Battle of the Bulge were American. Some great feats of staff work resulted in the Third Army and Ninth Army essentially altering their facing by ninety degrees to contain the salient. The British XXX Corps took part in the battle, and 21st Army Group had an important controlling role. However, the salient created by the German attack meant that First and Ninth Armies were cut off from 12th Army Group Headquarters, so they were shifted to the command of 21st Army Group for the duration of the battle.

By the end of January, the salient had effectively been reduced back to its former size, and the temporarily aborted mission of liberating the Rhineland recommenced. First Army returned to 12th Army Group, but Ninth Army remained under the control of 21st Army Group for the time being.

Crossing the Rhine and Final Surrender

The penultimate preliminary operation to close up to the Rhine in the British section was the clearing of the Roermond Triangle. The XIII Corps removed German forces from the west bank of the Roer during the second half of January.

Following the reaching of the Roer, Second Army shifted to the mission of pinning German forces opposing it. Ninth Army in Operation Grenade and First Army in Operation Veritable began a great pincer movement to destroy the remaining German forces west of the Rhine. The only British forces to take part in the main part of this offensive was XXX Corps, which was part of First Army. By 5 March, the Canadian, British and American forces had closed up to the Rhine in all but a small salient on their sectors of the front. That salient was reduced by five days later.

The operations to cross the Rhine in the north began on 23 March, with British Second and U.S. Ninth Armies taking the lead. Ninth Army, on the south flank, took part in the great encirclement of German forces in the Ruhr. The U.S. First Army on the right crossed the Rhine in early April and then swung left to liberate northern Holland. Second Army drove straight across the north German plain, reaching the Ems on 1 April and the Weser on 4 April. After the closing of the Ruhr pocket on that day, Ninth Army reverted to the command of 12th Army Group.

By 18 April, First Army had reached the coast in much of Holland, isolating the German forces there. Second Army reached the Elbe the next day. The only moves in Holland that the Canadian and Polish forces made for the remainder of the war were reducing a small amount of the coast of the IJsselmeer that had not been captured and liberating a small amount of territory around Groningen. Most of German Frisia also fell to Canadian and Polish forces. British units reached the Baltic on 2 May, and then halted as they had reached the agreed line of meeting Soviet forces. The war came to an end on 7 May, and British forces reoriented to the task of occupying Germany itself.

Combined Bomber Offensive

Main article see: RAF Bomber Command

The combined bomber offensive was born out of the need to strike back at Germany during the years when the United Kingdom had no forces on the continent of Europe. Initially the bomber forces available for attacks were small, and the rules of engagement were so restricted that any attacks that were made were mostly ineffective. However, once France had fallen in the summer of 1940 that began to change.

During and after the Battle of Britain, bomber forces pounded the invasion fleets assembling in channel ports. However, they also flew a raid against Berlin after German bombs had fallen on London. The attack on Berlin by Bomber Command so enraged Hitler that he ordered the deliberate and systematic targeting of British cities in revenge. Throughout 1941, the size of the raids launched by Bomber Command slowly grew. However, due to the German defences raids could only generally be flown at night, and the navigational technology of the time simply did not allow even a large city to be accurately located.

The entry of America into the war in December 1941 did not initially change much. However, what did alter matters was the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command in early 1942. Harris was a zealous advocate of the area bombing of German cities. He put a new fire and drive into the operations of Bomber Command. During the summer of 1942, the first 1,000 bomber raids were launched on German cities. However, at that time, such large numbers of aircraft could only be put over the target by stripping training units of their aircraft temporarily.

Other important advances occurred in the technical field. The first navigation aid, Gee was introduced to help pilots to find their targets. Window, small metal strips dropped from aircraft, was introduced to help confuse the German radars. Planes also got their own radar, the H2S radar system. It provided a radar map of the ground beneath the aircraft, allowing navigation with more accuracy to cities like Berlin which were at that time beyond the effective range of systems like Gee. However, probably the most important innovation to improve targeting accuracy was tactical, not technical. It was the introduction of the pathfinder system. Pathfinders were groups of specially trained aircrews who flew ahead of the main raid and marked the target. Their use greatly improved the accuracy and destructiveness of raids.

By early 1943, American forces were beginning to build up in large numbers in the UK. Bomber Command was joined in its bombing efforts by the US Eighth Air Force. Where Bomber Command operated by night, the Eighth flew by day. Raids were often coordinated so that the same target was hit twice within 24 hours. Hamburg was the victim of one of the most destructive air raids in history during 1943. The city was easy to find using radar, being located on the distinctively shaped Elbe estuary. It was devastated in a large raid that ignited a firestorm and killed some 50,000 people.

The destruction of Hamburg was not to be repeated during the rest of 1943 and 1944. During that winter, Berlin was attacked a large number of time, with heavy losses being sustained by Bomber Command. A further force also joined the fray, with the US Fifteenth Air Force and RAF No. 205 Group beginning to fly from Italy. During early 1944, the emphasis began to change. As the invasion of France drew closer, the independent role of the bomber forces was considerably reduced, and eventually they were placed under the direction of the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, General Eisenhower. Harris and his American counterparts fought hard against being placed under Eisenhowever, but they eventually lost.

Bomber Command heavily bombed targets in France and helped to paralyse the transport system of the country in time for the launching of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944. Following Overlord, further direct support was provided to the troop, but Harris eventually succeeded in detaching his command from Eisenhower's control. The striking of German cities resumed.

By the winter of 1944, the power of the British and American bomber forces had grown enormously. It was now routine for 1,000 bomber raids to be mounted by both American and British forces flying from the UK. American forces flying from Italy could also put several hundred aircraft above a target. Accuracy had improved, but it was still nowhere near good enough for 'precision bombing' in the modern sense of the term. Precision was not a single building, it was at best a district of a city.

As the amount of territory controlled by German forces decreased, the task of Bomber Command became somewhat easier, as more friendly territory was overflown during missions. The German night fighter defences were also reducing in strength due to the crippling of Germany's fuel supplies by American bombing of synthetic oil plants. There remained one last great controversy during the war which would blacken the name of Bomber Command and surpass the firestorm of Hamburg in both destruction and casualties.

In February 1945, as Soviet forces closed in on the German city of Dresden, thus far largely spared heavy bombing raids due to its historic status, they asked for attacks to be made on the extensive transport links that existed in and around the population centre. Bomber Command and American forces obliged, subjecting the city to a series of extremely heavy raids. Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 people were killed in those raids, and questions were asked whether they were necessary so late in the war.

After the surrender of Germany, Harris became a hate figure for many, and he was shunned by quite a few of his fellow officers. Even Churchill, who had supported area bombing vigorously backed away from him.

Bomber Command was destined to play no further large part in the war. A large number of RAF bombers were being prepared for deployment to Okinawa as Japan surrendered. Therefore it was only at the hands of American strategic bombers and British and American carrier aircraft that Japan received attacks. There was to be no far eastern equivalent of the combined bomber offensive of Europe.

The Far East

Main article see South-East Asian Theatre of World War II

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 aircraft 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 peninsula 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.

Indian, British and Australian army forces in Malaya were larger in numbers then the other services, but equally ill-prepared and ill-led. They were committed in numbers both too small and too poorly positioned to counter the Japanese general strategy and their tactics of outflanking strongpoints through the jungle. Over a period of several weeks, the Allied ground 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 focused on defeating Germany and Italy. The colony was run by a Governor who did not want to "upset" the civilian population. Military neglect was exacerbated, when he refused to allow defensive preparations before the Japanese arrived.

Following Japanese landings on Singapore, intense fighting occurred over several days, but the poorly-led and increasingly disorganised Allied forces were steadily driven into a small pocket on the island. On February 15, 1942, General Arthur Percival surrendered the 80,000 strong garrison of Singapore. This was the largest surrender of personnel under British leadership in history. Many of the troops saw little or no action. The civilian population then suffered a brutal Japanese occupation. Some aircraft 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.

Burma Campaign

Main article see Burma Campaign

Forced Out of Burma

In Burma, the Japanese attacked shortly after the outbreak of war. However, they did not begin to make real progress until Malaya and Singapore had fallen. After that, they could transfer large numbers of aircraft to the Burma front to overwhelm the Allied forces.

The first Japanese attacks were aimed at taking Rangoon, the major port in Burma, which offered the Allies many advantages of supply. It had at first been defended relatively successfully, with the weak RAF forces reinforced by a squadron of the famous American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. However, as the Japanese attack developed, the amount of warning the Rangoon airfields could get of attack decreased, and thus they became increasingly untenable.

By the start of March, Japanese forces had cut the British forces in two. Rangoon was evacuated and the port demolished. Its garrison then broke through the Japanese lines thanks to an error on the part of the Japanese commander. The British commander in Burma, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Hutton was removed from command shortly before Rangoon fell. He was replaced by Sir Harold Alexander

With the fall of Rangoon, a British evacuation of Burma became inevitable. Supplies could not be moved to maintain fighting forces in Burma on a large scale, since the ground communications were dreadful, sea communications risky in the extreme (along with the fact that there was only one other port of any size in Burma besides Rangoon) and air communications out of the question due to lack of transport aircraft.

Besides the Japanese superiority in training and experience, command problems beset the Burma campaign. The 1st Burma Division and Indian 17th Infantry Division at first had to be controlled directly by the Burma Army headquarters under Hutton. Burma was also swapped from command to command during the early months of the war. It had been the responsibility of GHQ India since 1937, but in the early weeks of the war, it was transferred from India to the ill-fated ABDA Command (ABDACOM). ABDA was based in Java, and it was simply impossible for Wavell, the Supreme Commander of ABDA, to keep in touch with the situation in Burma without neglecting his other responsibilities. Shortly before ABDA was dissolved, responsibility for Burma was transferred back to India. Interactions with the Chinese proved problematic. Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of Nationalist China, was a poor strategist, and the Chinese Army suffered from severe command problems, with orders having to come directly from Chiang himself if they were to be obeyed. The ability of many Chinese commanders was called into question. Finally, the Chinese Army was lacking in the ancillary services which allow a force to fight a modern war.

The problems with the Chinese were never satisfactorily resolved. However, after the dissolution of ABDA, India retained control of operations in Burma until the formation of South East Asia Command in late 1943. The problems of a lack of corps headquarters were also solved. A skeleton force known as Burcorps was formed under Lieutenant General Sir William Slim, later to gain fame as the commander of the Fourteenth Army.

Burcorps retreated almost constantly, and suffered several disastrous losses, but it eventually managed to reach India in May 1942, just before the monsoon broke. Had it still been in Burma after the monsoon broke, it would have been cut off, and likely destroyed by the Japanese. The divisions making up Burcorps were withdrawn from the line for long refit periods.

Forgotten Army

Operations in Burma over the remainder of 1942 and in 1943 were a study of military frustration. The UK could only just maintain three active campaigns, and immediate offensives in both the Middle East and Far East proved impossible due to lack of resources. The Middle East won out, being closer to home and a campaign against the far more dangerous Germans.

During the 1942-1943 dry season, two operations were mounted. The first was a small scale offensive into the Arakan region of Burma. The Arakan is a coastal strip along the Bay of Bengal, crossed by numerous rivers. The First Arakan offensive largely failed due to difficulties of logistics, communications and command. The Japanese troops were also still assigned almost superhuman powers by their opponents. The second attack was much more controversial; that of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, better known as the Chindits.

Under the command of Major General Orde Wingate, the Chindits penetrated deep behind enemy lines in an attempt to gain intelligence, break communications and cause confusion. The operation had originally been conceived as part of a much larger offensive, which had to be aborted due to lack of supplies and shipping. Almost all of the original reasons for mounting the Chindit operation were then invalid. Nevertheless, it was mounted anyway.

Some 3,000 men entered Burma in many columns. They did cause damage to Japanese communications, and they did gather intelligence. However, they suffered dreadful casualties, with only two thirds of the men who set out on the expedition returning. Those that did return were wracked with disease and quite often in dreadful physical condition. The most important contributions of the Chindits to the war were unexpected. They had had to be supplied by air. At first it had been thought impossible to drop supplies over the jungle. Emergency situations that arose during the operation necessitated supply drops in the jungle, proving it was possible. It is also alleged by some that the Japanese in Burma decided to take the offensive, rather than adopt a purely defensive stance, as a direct result of the Chindit operation. Whatever the reason for this later change to the offensive, it was to prove fatal for the Japanese in Burma.

Kohima and Imphal

As the 1943-44 dry period dawned, both sides were preparing to take the offensive. The British Fourteenth Army struck first, but only marginally before the Japanese.

In Arakan, a British advance began on the XV Corps front. However, a Japanese counterattack halted the advance and threatened to destroy the forces making it. Unlike during previous operations, the British forces stood firm, and were supplied from the air. The resulting Battle of Ngakyedauk Pass saw a heavy defeat handed to the Japanese. With the possibility of aerial supply, their infiltration tactics, relying on units carrying their own supplies and hoping to capture enemy victuals were fatally compromised.

On the central front, IV Corps advanced into Burma, before indications that a major Japanese offensive was building caused it to retreat on Kohima and Imphal. Forward elements of the corps were nearly cut off by Japanese forces, but eventually made it back to India. As they waited for the storm to break, the British forces were not to know that the successful defence of the two cities would be the turning point of the entire campaign in south east Asia. HQ XXXIII Corps was rushed forward to help control matters at the front and the two corps settled down for a long siege.

The Japanese threw themselves repeatedly against the defences of the two strong points, in the battles of Imphal and Kohima, but could not break through. At times the supply situation was perilous, but never totally critical. It came down to a battle of attrition, and the British forces could simply afford to fight that kind of battle for longer. In the end, the Japanese ran out of supplies, and suffered large casualties. They broke and fled back into Burma, pursued by elements of Fourteenth Army.

Burma Retaken

The recapture of Burma took place during late 1944 and the first half of 1945. Command of the British formations on the front was rearranged in November 1944. 11th Army Group was replaced with Allied Land Forces South East Asia and XV Corps was placed directly under ALFSEA.

Some of the first operations to recapture Burma took place in Arakan. To gain bases for the aircraft necessary to supply Fourteenth Army in its attack through the heart of the country, two offshore islands, Akyab and Ramree, had to be captured. Akyab was virtually undefended when British forces came ashore, so it effectively provided a rehearsal of amphibious assault doctrine for the forces in theatre. However, Ramree was defended by several thousand Japanese. The clearing of the island took several days, and associated forces on the mainland longer to clear out. Following these actions, XV Corps was greatly reduced in numbers to free up transport aircraft to support Fourteenth Army.

Fourteenth Army made the main thrust to destroy Japanese forces in Burma. The Army had IV and XXXIII Corps under its command. The conception of the plan was that XXXIII Corps would reduce Mandalay, and act as a diversion for the main striking force of IV Corps which would take Meiktila and thus cut the Japanese communications. The plan succeeded extremely well, and Japanese forces in Upper Burma were effectively reduced to scattered and unorganised pockets. Slim's men then advanced south towards the Burmese capital.

Following the taking of Rangoon in May 1945, there were still Japanese forces to take care of in Burma, but it was effectively a large mopping up operation. This was to be an amphibious assault on the western side of Malaya codenamed Operation Zipper. However, the dropping of the atomic bombs forestalled Zipper, and it was undertaken postwar as the quickest way of getting occupation troops into Malaya.

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 airfields on the chain of islands between Formosa and Okinawa, to prevent the Japanese reinforcing the defences of Okinawa from that direction. British forces made a significant contribution to the success of the invasion.

During the final strikes against Japan, British forces operated as an integral part of the American task force.

Only a small British naval force was present for Japan's surrender. Most British forces had been withdrawing to base to prepare for Operation Olympic, the first part of the massive invasion of Japan.

The Air War


Special Forces

Military Structures


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