WW2: When Britain stood (not quite) alone

At a time when both sides of the Brexit divide are invoking memories of the Second World War, historian Keith Lowe examines the realities of Britain’s role during the 1939–45 conflict, considering just how isolated its struggle was…

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, seated from left to right, in Yalta for the 'Big Three' Conference. In February 1945, British diplomats were already joking that it was actually a conference of the ‘Big Two-and-a-Half’. (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Ever since the word ‘Brexit’ was first coined, commentators on both sides of the debate have been trying to bolster their arguments with appeals to history. In particular, they like to invoke popular memories of the Second World War.

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For Brexiteers, the war represents a shining example. They see it as a time when Britain escaped the dangers of mainland Europe, stood up to the bullies in Berlin and emerged victorious. During the war, they say, Britain stood alone. After Brexit, it can do so again.

For Remainers, by contrast, the war stands as a stark warning to us all. As David Cameron argued in 2016, it was not by choice that Britain stood alone against the Nazis. The isolation Britain endured was one of the factors that led British leaders like Churchill to endorse the ‘European dream’ after 1945.

We can all choose for ourselves which version of this story we would prefer to believe. But I would like to examine the assumption that pops up on both sides: the idea that Britain stood alone during the war. This old chestnut turns up so regularly on Twitter, in newspaper editorials and in politicians’ speeches that it is worthwhile examining in detail.

The first question to ask is when exactly Britain is supposed to have stood alone?

It was certainly not alone in 1939. When Britain first went to war, it was as the ally of both Poland and France. Australia and New Zealand declared war on the same day as Britain did. They were joined by South Africa three days later, and Canada four days after that. In the following months British troops also fought alongside the Norwegians, the Belgians and the Dutch. In other words Britain was just one part of an international effort.

It is also worth mentioning that, during this time, Britain was very much the junior partner on the battlefield. In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force fielded a little more than 300,000 men. The French had almost 10 times that number.

If Britain had plenty of allies at the beginning of the war, then the same is true of the end of the conflict. In July 1941, the Soviet Union signed a military pact with Britain. Less than six months later, the United States also joined the alliance, followed by Cuba, Mexico, Brazil and eventually every other state in Latin America. China also joined the Allies.

Once again, Britain was little more than a junior partner in this Grand Alliance. The Soviets did most of the fighting in Europe, while the Americans provided most of the resources. This was reflected at all of the major conferences that took place towards the end of the war, where the two superpowers took the lead on almost everything. At the conference of the so-called ‘Big Three’ in Yalta, in February 1945, British diplomats were already joking that it was actually a conference of the ‘Big Two-and-a-Half’.

So if the British did not stand alone at the beginning of the war, nor at the end, what about during the middle? When most people talk of Britain standing alone, they usually refer to a single year, between June 1940 and June 1941. So let’s examine that year in detail.

The war continued during this time on land, at sea and in the air.

On land, Britain fought several battles in North and East Africa. However, most of the troops were not actually British at all, but Australian, Indian and African. Some of them were even French and Belgian. Despite the capitulation of both countries that summer, many French and Belgian colonial troops were determined to fight on, and put themselves at the disposal of the British.

British and French troops await evacuation at Dunkirk. The Dutch Navy also helped in the evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk, as did dozens of French and Belgian fishing vessels. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
British and French troops await evacuation at Dunkirk. The Dutch Navy also helped in the evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk, as did dozens of French and Belgian fishing vessels. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The only European theatre where the British Army saw action during this time was in Greece – although once again most of the troops who served were actually from Australia and New Zealand. Greece was at war with the Axis powers for most of this year, which in itself makes the claim that Britain stood alone seem dubious. The fact Yugoslavia was drawn into the war in April 1941 makes it doubly so.

Perhaps the war at sea can be considered more of a British affair? After all, Britain still had the most powerful navy in the world at this time. But the Royal Navy did not work alone. Some of the ships that transported all those colonial troops to Egypt and the Mediterranean were Dutch. The Dutch Navy also helped in the evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk, as did dozens of French and Belgian fishing vessels. The Free French Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Norwegian Navy all helped to escort convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic.

The merchant navy that supplied Britain during the war was also a truly international group, with ships and crews from all over the world. In 1940, the world’s biggest shipping company was Norway’s Nortraship, which boasted more than 1,000 ships and 30,000 seamen. Nortraship’s resources were put at Britain’s disposal after Norway fell to the Germans. The US Merchant Marine also played a part in Britain’s war effort, despite being supposedly neutral. Dozens of US ships were damaged or destroyed in 1941 while making the trip across the Atlantic to supply Britain.

If neither the British Army nor the Royal Navy stood alone in 1940 and 1941, then what about the Royal Air Force? When most people think of Britain standing alone, what they really have in mind is the Battle of Britain. Surely here, at least, there is truth in the myth?

But the fighter pilots defending our shores were no more exclusively British than any other group of people. Britain’s most successful squadron during the Battle of Britain was the Polish 303 Squadron, without whom, according to the head of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, “I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same.” Some of our most successful fighter aces at this time were from Czechoslovakia (Josef František), Ireland (Paddy Finucane), South Africa (Adolph Malan) and New Zealand (Colin Gray and Brian Carbury). Pilots from 15 other nations fought during that famous summer. Together they constituted 20% of Fighter Command.

When most people think of Britain standing alone during WW2, do they have in mind the Battle of Britain? Britain’s most successful squadron during the Battle of Britain was the Polish 303 Squadron, pictured. (Photo by S A Devon/ IWM via Getty Images)
When most people think of Britain standing alone during WW2, do they have in mind the Battle of Britain? Britain’s most successful squadron during the Battle of Britain was the Polish 303 Squadron, pictured. (Photo by S A Devon/ IWM via Getty Images)

There are many other reasons why Britain did not stand alone during the war. Even in 1940, Britain was already home to forces from all over the world, which would have helped to defend the country in the event of any invasion. Nine governments-in-exile were based here and put their resources at British disposal. Resistance organisations all over Europe provided Britain with invaluable intelligence, especially Polish cryptographers, without whom we would never have cracked the German codes. Britain paid for the war with credit from all over its empire and dominions, as well as from the United States; and it relied on its many trading partners to keep the country afloat. The list goes on.

If we are to learn anything from this at all, it is that no nation is ever truly an island, even when its geography suggests otherwise – and even when it is besieged by enemies.

For those who insist on making parallels between Brexit and the Second World War, this should give them heart. Britain never stood alone during the war. And I suspect that the same will be true after Brexit, regardless of which way negotiations go during the coming weeks.

Keith Lowe is the author of The Fear and the Freedom (Viking). You can follow him on Twitter at @KeithLoweAuthor

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This article was first published in February 2019