A colossus at war

The image of Britain in 1940 as a spirited underdog facing the German goliath is misleading. That's the view of David Edgerton, who argues here that Winston Churchill had ample resources to defeat Hitler – and fully expected to do so

British ordinance workers put the final touches to anti-aircraft gun barrels, c1940.  (Photo by Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Britain fought the Second World War as the plucky underdog, heroically resisting the assaults of the German mechanical moloch. The ill-prepared and ill-armed little island stood up against the continental monster, confident in its case, revitalised in its national energies by the majestic words of a leader. Against all odds, it emerged triumphant – thanks in no small part to boundless supplies of ingenuity and improvisation. In the process, however, it bankrupted itself, and was only able to keep going with assistance from the United States of America.

This is anyway the story we are told. Yet Winston Churchill didn’t share this view of a British David standing up to the German Goliath. Speaking to the Canadian parliament in December 1941, he recalled that, in the aftermath of the catastrophic defeat of France in May/June 1940, a French leader had told him that Britain’s neck would now be wrung like that of a chicken. The prime minister’s response was as bullish as it was defiant: “Some chicken, some neck!”

As Churchill recognised, the British empire was not easily dispatched. It had the greatest navy in the world, and a powerful air force. It had the capacity not only to hold out, but to produce arms on a vast scale. It was also wealthy enough to be able to import additional armaments. Great contracts were placed in the USA for merchant ships, rifles, aero-engines, explosives – and that was just in 1940.

It was with good reason that many believed, even in late 1940, that the British empire could not just resist Hitler, but beat him. It would do it by blockade, by bombing, and if necessary by invasion with a strong mechanised army. And this confidence in victory was inspired by calculations of wealth and of arms production – not just words.

In 1939 both Britain and France believed they would win the war they had jointly declared against Germany. “We will win because we are the strongest,” was the French view; the British spoke of “the assurance of victory”, the title of a government pamphlet of December 1939. Two economic arguments were central. First, Britain’s economy was more efficient than Germany’s, which meant that Britain could potentially devote a higher proportion of its economic activity to the armed forces and munitions. Indeed this was soon to become the case, and was already nearly so in 1940.

The second and related argument was that Britain had the great advantage of being able to import cheap food, raw materials and petrol, rather than having to produce them expensively at home as did Germany. Britain’s dependence on overseas resources was seen as a source of strength, not weakness.

Britain was the greatest importer in the world of food, raw materials, and oil. It imported bacon and eggs from Denmark and the Netherlands; meat from Australasia and the River Plate; wheat from Canada, Argentina and Australia. Many of its most basic raw materials were imported too, things like timber from the Baltic, and iron ore from Sweden and north Africa, as well as smaller but still significant quantities of such things as cotton. Although a net exporter of energy (coal), it was the largest importer of oil in the world, which came in the form of refined products from many places.

Wasn’t this advantage fatally compromised by the U-boat? In fact British imports were more affected by German land conquests than by its submersible commerce raiders. Supplies now had to be found either at home (as in timber) or in north America (as in bacon) or consumption much reduced (as in paper). Steel and armaments replaced iron ore. Meat and cheese imports increased to help make up for the fall in imports in food for animals; meat and cheese production shifted abroad.

Imports into Britain may have changed their nature, and their origins, but the quantities involved were still huge. By value they remained constant or even increased (up nearly 20 per cent in real terms by one estimate); by weight they fell by around 30 per cent. It is notable that human food imports overall fell by only a quarter, and that oil imports doubled during the war. The image we have of austerity, shortage and weakness is very misleading.

Britain’s sea power was such that it could cope with the major dislocations caused to trade by the war, not least because it acquired the merchant ships of many defeated nations. By contrast, German ships nearly all went to the bottom, its economy was thoroughly blockaded, and it had to keep millions on the land, and use precious coal to make petrol extremely expensively. It was Germany that had to ration basic foods. Britain rationed only expensive and nutritionally-rich foods that were largely imported: meat, cheese, butter, sugar. Britain’s civilians were well supplied.

So were the armed forces. Britain was outproducing Germany in aircraft from 1940 onwards, and would have large supplies of aircraft from overseas on top of this. Even in 1940, the bomber, not the fighter, was at the centre of production. And it wasn’t just British-crewed bombers, for the Commonwealth air forces were also able to bring devastation to Germany – something the Germans could not begin to reciprocate.

More surprising still is that the British army, while small, had comparatively more tanks than the Wehrmacht from the beginning to the end of the war. In 1940 the British Expeditionary Force had more tanks (in every category) than a German army of roughly equivalent size. Even after these were lost, there were enough to spare for north Africa. In fact, British and imperial forces enjoyed a massive tank superiority over German and Italian forces in all three years of campaigning in the desert. And this superiority was replicated in Europe where, following D-Day, the British army had one armoured formation for every infantry one, compared with a German ratio of one to four.

The world rides to the rescue

Much of the rest of the world continued to support Britain to an astonishing degree. The United States subsidised the British war effort by sending over huge quantities of arms, tools, fuel and food under the Lend-Lease programme. Meanwhile, existing suppliers to Britain of food and raw materials had to maintain their supplies – even though Britain could not pay immediately – as there was no other customer. In effect, they lent Britain huge sums of money.

In Egypt and India, a good part of the war effort was funded by the locals, with the British promising to pay after the war. Lend-lease and the so-called sterling balances, which were in effect loans from countries in the sterling area, were of enormous value to Britain’s war effort.

This support from abroad explains why so many Britons were able to join the armed forces or work in arms production – after all, they weren’t required to make exports or grow food. It wasn’t national genius or commitment to the war that was responsible for so many Britons being directly engaged in the war effort, but the commitment of foreigners to Britain.

The years 1940–42, usually seen as ones of British imperial weakness, were years of great relative strength. Britain was unquestionably a great power fighting another great power – and it clearly expected to win. As Churchill put it in February 1941: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job” – that is, defeat Nazi Germany. By early 1942, however, following grievous losses in Asia, the entry of the US into the war, and an extraordinary effort by the Soviet Union, such a statement could not be made. Britain was relatively a much less significant force.

In fact, by the end of the war, Britain’s war effort was largely funded by the USA. By 1945 (but certainly not in 1940), most British tanks, oil of all kinds, some types of aircraft and great quantities of shipping originated from the other side of the Atlantic. These supplies – so crucial to Britain’s survival – were regulated by Anglo-American bodies based in Washington but were ultimately controlled by the USA.

During the second half of the war, the US mobilised its unemployed workers, mines and factories and its lavish natural resources, to become what Britain had so recently been – the greatest maritime and air power in the world, and the greatest arms producer. Even the Royal Navy and the British Merchant Navy – for so long the dominant force on the world’s oceans – were overtaken.

So why is the traditional perception of wartime Britain – a weak nation growing stronger as the war went on – so different to the reality? Firstly, the dependence on the USA and relative weakness of the end of the war is projected backwards to the beginning, when things were very different.

Secondly Britain suffered major defeats at the beginning of the war. Its forces – and, above all, that of its great ally France – were routed in May/June 1940. Then, in late 1941 and early 1942 British forces were humiliated by the Japanese, before suffering major losses in north Africa. All of these reverses were interpreted as the result of not producing enough arms. Churchill was attacked ferociously for this in July 1942. His response was that British arms were recovering from the disastrous position in which they had found themselves in 1940, so compounding the image of weakness.

A third reason was that British propaganda over-egged the story of scarcity and austerity to impress American audiences. So in 1942 Americans were told in a special documentary film that Britain’s food imports halved, which was only true if one included food for animals. The American public did not want to see Britons overfed on Lend-Lease bacon.

Histories of the British war effort were to focus on plans for the future, on designs for the welfare state, on the role of the Labour party and the reforms of Ernest Bevin and William Beveridge. Viewed through this postwar prism, the great machinery of war fighting was ignored or misunderstood. This left a vacuum for the argument – put especially forcefully in the 1980s – that Britain was by 1939 thoroughly clapped out as a military and industrial power; it had been in terminal decline since the late 19th century, and was only saved from extinction in 1940 by help from the United States.

We need a new, realistic picture of Britain at war. That involves creating not only a new picture of Britain itself, but also of its relations to the rest of the world. It was a great power, an economic and military colossus, richer and more advanced by most measures than any other European power. This helps explain why it came third in the Second World War, and of all the powers other than the USA, was the least damaged by it. It explains too why its population was able to be fed and otherwise provided for in the comparatively generous way it was.

Britain’s strength was in part due to its internal power, but also to its quite unique place in the world. Its relations with foreigners gave it strength, and it was major changes in other countries, not British failures, that led to a radical relative decline in Britain’s power.


Feeding the war machine

The global operation that ensured that Britain was fed, armed and fuelled from 1939–45

Oil

Britain imported refined oil before the war from the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the Far East. By the end of the war, oil imports had doubled, and now came largely from the USA. Such imports were vital to drive an expanded navy, a huge air force, and of course a mechanised army. A whole system of new pipelines linked the western ports with airfields in the east, and the continent of Europe through the PLUTO pipeline under the sea.

Rifles

Because Britain never intended to create a great army, it produced few rifles in 1940. Yet it had plans to make millions the world over. Lee-Enfield rifles (like the one pictured left) were made in new factories in Britain, Canada, the USA, India and Australia. In fact, more were produced abroad than in Britain, to supply an army that was even more imperial than in the First World War.

Meat

The British were the great meat eaters of Europe, particularly when it came to beef and lamb. Civilian meat consumption of all types fell by one quarter, while imports increased. More meat came canned, and beef was now frozen rather than chilled. Like many other foods it was increasingly industrialised during the war. Meat (though not offal) was rationed but available in large quantities compared to continental Europe.

Rubber

The British and Dutch empires had dominant positions in the world rubber market through their control of Malaya and the East Indies. The Germans had to rely on synthetic rubber, and so too to some extent did the British and Americans after the Japanese victories in the east. Rubber was plentiful, and much could be recycled through what was called ‘salvage’.

Machines

British-designed aeroengines, aircraft, artillery and merchant ships were built across the empire – notably in Canada – but also in the United States, which adopted some British equipment for its own use. The most important cases were the Merlin aero-engine, the 6-pounder anti-tank gun, and the Liberty ship. The whole empire saw a surge of industrialisation to meet its war needs.

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David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing professor at Imperial College London. His latest book, Britain’s War Machine, was published by Allen Lane in March.