The Full Wiki

More info on Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II

Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II: Map


Wikipedia article:

Map showing all locations mentioned on Wikipedia article:

The United Kingdommarker, along with the British Empire's Crown colonies, including the British West Indies and British India, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. Hostilities with Japanmarker began in 1941, after it attacked British colonies in Asia. The Axis powers were defeated by the Allies in 1945.

Pre-war Military

Although the United Kingdom had increased military spending and funding 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 its German counterpart. The Army only had 9 divisions available for war, whereas, Germanymarker had 78 available and Francemarker, 86.

Beginning of the fight

Anticipating the outbreak of the Second World War, The Polish Navy during the Peking Plan, carried out in late August and early September 1939, evacuated to Great Britain three valuable modern destroyers, Burza (Storm), Błyskawicamarker (Lightning), and Grom (Thunder); the ships served alongside (and under the command of) the Royal Navy for the remainder of the war.
The message sent to ships of the Royal Navy informing them of the outbreak of war.
On 3 September, the United Kingdommarker and Francemarker declared war on Germanymarker as obliged by the Anglo-Polish military alliance, the declaration was made 24 hours after the UKmarker had issued an ultimatum to Germanymarker to withdraw all German forces from Polandmarker. After the fall of Poland, the Royal Navy was strengthened by the arrival of two Polish submarines Orzeł (Eagle) and Wilk (Wolf) and the formation of Polish Navy in Great Britainmarker then supplemented with leased British ships.

The army immediately began dispatching the British Expeditionary Force to support Francemarker. At first only regular troops from the pre-war Army made up its numbers. In 1940, however, men of the Territorial Army (TA) divisions being mobilised in the UKmarker were sent. In the end, the BEF had I, II and III Corps under its command, controlling 200,000 men. The Royal Air Force also sent significant forces to Francemarker 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 RAF Fighter Command. Separately, Bomber Command sent the Advanced Air Striking Force, composed of squadrons flying the Fairey Battle and other machines that did not have the range to reach Germanymarker from the UKmarker.

During the Phoney War, the RAF carried out small bombing raids and a large number of propaganda leaflet raids (codenamed "Nickels") and the Royal Navy imposed a coastal blockade on Germanymarker.

Western and northern Europe, 1940 and 1941

Norwegian campaign

Norwaymarker was vital for Germanymarker and the United Kingdommarker because of the great iron ore deposits in northern Swedenmarker. Convinced that the United Kingdommarker might make a move against Norwaymarker to stop the flow of ore from Narvikmarker, Adolf Hitler ordered a strike to begin on 9 April 1940.

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

British land forces were quickly sent to Norwaymarker, landing in the centre at Åndalsnesmarker and at Namsos and in the north of the country at Narvikmarker. Landings farther south were denied by German airpower.

The early war

In central Norwaymarker, Royal Navy aircraft carriers and RAF fighter squadrons could not keep the established bases secure. The British had to evacuate them. In the north, the Germans were driven out of Narvikmarker after they had captured it. However, as Luftwaffe aircraft came into range with the German advances, it was again found to be impossible to sustain bases in the face of that threat. British forces in Narvikmarker were withdrawn as well.

As a consequence of the German invasion of Norwaymarker and Denmarkmarker, the United Kingdom commenced a pre-emptive occupation of the Faroe Islandsmarker on 12 April 1940.

Occupation of Iceland

On 10 May 1940, the United Kingdom occupied Icelandmarker to install naval and air bases on this Atlantic island.

The Battle of France

On 10 May the so called Phoney War between Germany and the Franco-British alliance ended with a sweeping German invasion of the Benelux. German troops entered France through the Ardennesmarker 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 Francemarker surrendering after six weeks. The United Kingdom and her 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.

Fall of France

When Francemarker fell the position changed drastically. A combination of the French, German and Italian navies could potentially deny the United Kingdom 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.


Fortunately for the United Kingdommarker, much of its army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirkmarker. In total, 338,226 troops were pulled off the beaches, of which 230,000 were British. However almost all the army's heavy equipment had been abandoned in Francemarker — many soldiers were unable to bring even their rifles.

The Battle of Britain

In preparation for a planned cross-channel land invasion which was to be called Operation Sea Lion, the Luftwaffe began operations to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) and to thus gain advance air superiority over its next intended conquest, Great Britainmarker. This battle for the skies over Britainmarker is referred to as the Battle of Britain. 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. In May 1941, only a few weeks after American president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease act, it became clear to German planners that the Luftwaffe was not likely to gain air superiority over Britain any time soon, and significant German forces in Francemarker were reassigned to the expanding German Eastern Front which were soon to be used in Germany's imminent struggle with Russiamarker.

The German failure to achieve air superiority over Britain in the Battle of Britain marked a major turning point in the war. This British victory, the first major one against the Third Reich, ensured the survival of an independent Britainmarker and marked the first major reverse in the German war effort of World War II.

The war at sea

Opening moves

Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate Estuary off Montevideo, Uruguay.
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 Germanymarker and Italymarker. The British and French immediately began a blockade of Germanymarker, 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 Admiral Graf Speemarker was sunk in the Battle of the River Platemarker by the British and New Zealand navies.

Battle of the Atlantic

First 'Happy Time'

With the fall of France, ports such as Brest, Francemarker 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 Statesmarker was taking an increasing part in the war. British forces had occupied Iceland shortly after Denmarkmarker fell to the Germans in 1940, the USmarker was persuaded to provide forces to relieve British troops on the island. American warships began escorting convoys to Icelandmarker, 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.

In addition, personnel training in the RN improved as the realities of the battle became obvious. For instance, the training regime of Vice Admiral Gilbert O. Stephenson is credited in improving personnel standards to a significant degree.

'Second Happy Time'

The attack on Pearl Harbormarker and the subsequent German declaration of war on the United Statesmarker had an immediate effect, with German U-boats conducting a highly successful campaign against traffic along the American east coast. A proportion of the ships sunk were en route to assembly points for convoys to Britainmarker. German sailors called this the "second happy time". It came to an end when a convoy system operated along the coast and adequate anti-submarine measures were employed.

Success against the U-boats

The institution of an interlocking convoy system on the American coast and in the Caribbean Seamarker 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 Karl 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

The Arctic convoys travelled from the USAmarker and the UKmarker to the northern ports of the USSRmarker - Archangelmarker and Murmanskmarker.

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 of Stalin's insistence of these convoys long after the Russians had turned the German land offensive.

The Mediterranean

The Mediterraneanmarker saw a great deal of naval action during World War II. In a struggle which lasted for three years the Royal Navy and Italian Navy battled for control of the sea. The Kriegsmarine also took part in the campaign, primarily through sending U-Boats into the Mediterraneanmarker, but also controlling the few remaining Axis naval forces after the Italian surrender.

The Mediterraneanmarker began the war dominated by the British and French navies with Italymarker as a neutral power astride communications in the centre of the area. The situation changed vastly with the fall of France and the declaration of war by Italymarker. In addition the British Mediterranean Fleet based at Alexandriamarker controlling the eastern end of the Mediterraneanmarker there was a need to replace French naval power in the west. To do this Force H was formed at Gibraltarmarker. The British Government was still concerned that the remaining French ships would be used by the Axis powers. Consequently they took steps to neutralise it.

At Alexandriamarker relations between the French and British commanders, Admirals Godfroy and Cunningham, were good. The French squadron there was impounded in the port. In the western basin things did not go so smoothly. The bulk of the French fleet was at Mers-el-Kebirmarker in North Africa. Force H steamed there to confront the French with terms. Those terms were all rejected and so the French fleet was attacked and heavily damaged by Force H. The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result. -- See destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebirmarker.

Battle of Taranto

The Italian battle fleet dominated the centre of the Mediterraneanmarker and so the Royal Navy hatched a plan to cripple it. On 11 November 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships by using carrier borne aircraft, the obsolescent Fairey Swordfish, in the Battle of Tarantomarker. As a result the Italian fleet was withdrawn from Tarantomarker and never again based in such a forward position. This battle inspired the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbormarker on 7 December 1941.

Battle of Matapan

The first fleet action of the war in the Mediterraneanmarker was the Battle of Cape Matapanmarker. It was a decisive Allied victory, fought off the Peloponnesusmarker coast of Greecemarker from 27 March to 29 March, 1941 in which the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy 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.

Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete

Destroyed British cruiser tank in Greece.
In October 1940, Fascist Italy attacked Greece only to be forced back into Albania. Following agreements with Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria that they would join the Axis, Hitler put pressure on th Kingdom of Yugoslaviamarker to join the Tripartite Pact. On 25 March 1941, the Yugoslavian Regent, Prince Paul, succumbed to this pressure. However, this move was deeply unpopular amongst the anti-Axis Serbian public and military. On 27 March 1941, a coup d'etat was launched by Serbian military officers and the Regent was replaced on the Yuugoslavian throne by King Peter II. After hearing news of the coup in Yugoslavia, Hitler launched the invasdion of Yugoslavia. On 6 April, German forces crossed the Yugoslavian border. By 17 April, all Yugoslavian resistance ceased.

The Battle of Greece (also known as "Operation Marita," or Unternehmen Marita) was fought between Greek and British Commonwealth forces on one side and Axis forces from Germany, Italy and Bulgaria on the other. On 2 March, the British launched Operation Lustre, the transportation of troops and equipment to Greece. Twenty-six troopships arrived at the port of Piraeusmarker and more than 62,000 Commonwealth troops (British, Australians, New Zealanders, Palestinians, and Cypriots) were sent to Greece. The Commonwealth forces comprised the 6th Australian Division, the New Zealand 2nd Division, and the British 1st Armoured Brigade. On 3 April, during a meeting of British, Yugoslav, and Greek military representatives, the Yugoslavs promised to block the Strimon valleymarker in case of a German attack across their territory. During this meeting, Papagos laid stress on the importance of a joint Greco-Yugoslavian offensive against the Italians, as soon as the Germans launched their offensive against Yugoslavia and Greece.

In the aftermath of the German invasion of Greecemarker, only the island of Cretemarker remained in Allied hands in the Aegeanmarker area. The Germans invaded in a combined operation and forced the evacuation of the British forces. The evacuation was essentially a Mediterranean version of Dunkirkmarker, but far more costly to the Royal Navy. It lost a number of cruisers along with large numbers of destroyers during the evacuation. 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".


Maltamarker, which lies in the middle of the Mediterraneanmarker, was always a great thorn in the side of the Axis. It was in the perfect strategic position to intercept Axis supplies destined for North Africa. For a time it looked as if Maltamarker would be starved into submission by the use of Axis aircraft flying from bases in Italymarker. The turning point in the siege came in August 1942, when the British sent a very heavily defended convoy codenamed Operation Pedestal. Once Maltamarker 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 material lifted the siege of Maltamarker. The British re-established a creditable air garrison on the island. With the aid of Ultra, Maltamarker garrison was able to destroy the Axis supplies to North Africa immediately before the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker. For the fortitude and courage of the Maltese during the siege, Maltamarker was awarded the George Cross.

Great invasions

In late 1942 Operation Torchmarker, the first of the great Allied combined operations during the war, was launched. It represented a new pattern in the naval war in the Mediterraneanmarker with the primary task of the naval forces being to cover the invasion. Since the Italian fleet was still extant a heavy covering force was required to screen against Italian interference. However the Italians did not leave port during the invasion.

Torchmarker was followed by Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily, and Operation Avalanche, the invasion of southern Italymarker. Again the naval forces escorted the invasion fleet and heavy cover was provided against Italian interference. In the aftermath of Avalanche the Italian surrender was announced and the British naval forces escorted the Italian fleet to Maltamarker under the terms of the surrender. The main threat to Allied shipping around Italymarker during these invasions was not the Italian fleet but German guided weapons which sunk or damaged a number of Allied units.

After the surrender of the Italian fleet, naval operations in the Mediterraneanmarker became relatively mundane, consisting largely of supporting ground troops by bombardment, anti-submarine missions, covert insertions of agents on enemy coast and convoy escort.

Aegean sweep

The one major exception to mundane missions occurred in late 1944. Due to their garrisons on the various islands of the Aegean, the Germans had maintained control over the Aegean Sea long after they had lost other areas of the Mediterraneanmarker to Allied control. In late 1944, that changed as an Allied carrier task force moved into the area. It was composed entirely of escort carrier but the task force wreaked havoc with German shipping in the area and reasserted Allied dominance over the last area of the Mediterraneanmarker still controlled by the Germans.

Operation Overlord and the Normandy landings

The invasion of Normandy was the greatest amphibious assault yet. 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 Kingdommarker 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 protecting the assault convoys from the small German surface forces in the area. Operation 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 Beachmarker. There the naval forces provided crucial backup for the assaulting forces, with destroyers coming in very close to the beach to 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 Francemarker, three destroyers from Bordeauxmarker 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 Oceanmarker was a backwater during World War II, there were several vital operations in that area. British convoys running through the western Indian Oceanmarker were vital for supplying Allied forces in North Africa. They faced a small but consistent threat from both German and Japanese "surface raiders" and submarines. Tankers sailing from the oil terminals of Iranmarker also had to run the same gauntlet.

The major operations in the Indian Oceanmarker took place in early 1942 and 1944/45.

British forces in the Singaporemarker were reinforced by HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in December 1941. However, three days into the war (10 December), those two ships were sunk by Japanese aircraft, the HMS Prince of Wales becoming one of the only modern Allied battleship sunk during the war (Another being the Italian battleship Roma). This was the first time that a battleship at sea and free to manoeuvre had been sunk by air attack.

Japanese forces captured Malaya (now Malaysiamarker), Singaporemarker and the Dutch East Indiesmarker forcing the remaining British warships to withdraw to Trincomaleemarker, Ceylonmarker (now Sri Lankamarker) and in February, 1942 they were reconstituted into the British Eastern Fleet. 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 as the new fleet commander, Admiral James Somerville, noted.

Following successes over American forces in the Pacificmarker, the main Japanese carrier force made its 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 Bengalmarker. The weight and experience of this Japanese force far outweighed that available to the Royal Navy. During these attacks, two British heavy cruisers, HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall, an aircraft carrier, the obsolete HMS Hermes, and a destroyer were sunk and many merchant ships were damaged or sunk.

Fortuitously, or by design, the main British fleet did not make contact with the Japanese and thus remained available for future action.

Indian Ocean retreat

Following those attacks, the British fleet retreated to Kilindinimarker in East Africa, as their more forward fleet anchorages could not be adequately protected from Japanese attack. The fleet in the Indian Oceanmarker 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 Madagascarmarker might fall into Japanese hands, to 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 needed 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 dispatched to the Indian Oceanmarker 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 Sumatramarker to prepare British carriers for the upcoming operations in the Pacificmarker. For the first attack, the United Statesmarker lent the USS Saratogamarker. The oil installations were heavily damaged by the attacks, aggravating the Japanese fuel shortages due to the Allied blockade. The final attack was flown as the carriers were heading for Sydneymarker to become the British Pacificmarker Fleet.

After the departure of the main battle forces, the Indian Oceanmarker 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 Burmamarker, including landings on Ramreemarker, Akyabmarker and near Rangoonmarker.

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 Ceylonmarker (now Sri Lankamarker), Fremantle, Western Australiamarker and finally the Philippinesmarker. A major success was the sinking of several Japanese cruisers.

The North African desert, Middle East, and Africa

On 13 September 1940, the Italian Tenth Army crossed the border from the Italian colony of Libyamarker into Egyptmarker, where British troops were protecting the Suez Canalmarker. The Italian invasion carried through to Sidi Barranimarker, approximately 95 km inside Egyptmarker. 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 British naval forces operating in the Mediterraneanmarker to interfere with Italian supply lines. There were Royal Navy seaports at Alexandriamarker, Haifamarker, and Port Saidmarker. Following the halt of the Italian Tenth Army, the British used the Western Desert Force's Jock columns to harass their lines in Egyptmarker.

The Offensive

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

Then, on 8 December 1940, 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 forwards and succeeded in reaching El Agheilamarker(an advance of 500 miles), capturing tens of thousands of enemy troops. The Italian army was virtually destroyed, and it seemed that the Italians would be swept out of Libyamarker. However, at the crucial moment, Churchill ordered that the advance be stopped and troops dispatched to defend Greecemarker. Weeks later the first German troops were arriving in North Africa to reinforce the Italians.

Iraq, Syria and Persia

In May 1941, to add to British troubles in the area, there was a coup d'état against the pro-British government in Iraqmarker. A pro-German ruler took power in the coup and ordered British forces out of Iraqmarker. There were two main British bases in Iraqmarker, around Basramarker and at Habbaniya north east of Baghdadmarker. Basramarker 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 were then set out from Habbaniya, Palestine (now Israelmarker) and Basramarker to capture Baghdadmarker, and put an end to the coup. They succeeded at relatively low cost, but there was a disturbing development during the campaign.

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

The final major military operation in the war in the Middle East took place shortly thereafter. The USSRmarker desperately needed supplies for its war against Germanymarker. Supplies were being sent around the North Cape convoy route to Murmanskmarker and Archanglemarker, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from The United Statesmarker to Vladivostokmarker in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, the obvious answer was to go through Persiamarker (now Iranmarker). The Shah of Persia was somewhat pro-German, and so would not allow this. Consequently British and Soviet forces invaded and occupied Persiamarker. The Shah was deposed (removed from power) and his son put on the throne.


Men of the King's African Rifles collecting surrendered arms at Wolchefit Pass, after the last Italians had ceased resistance in Ethiopia

The Italians declared war on 10 June 1940 and in addition to the well known campaigns in the western desert, a front was opened against them in Africa. This front was in and around the Italian East African colonies: Ethiopiamarker, Italian Somaliland (now part of Somaliamarker), and Eritreamarker.

As in Egyptmarker, British forces were massively outnumbered by their Italian opponents. However, unlike Libyamarker, Ethiopiamarker was isolated from the Italian mainland, and the Italians were thus cut off from resupply.

The first offensive moves of the campaign fell to the Italians. They attacked in three directions, into Sudanmarker, Kenyamarker and British Somaliland. Only in the Italian conquest of British Somaliland did they enjoy full success. The British garrison in Somalilandmarker (now Somaliamarker) was outnumbered, and after a couple of weeks of fighting had to be evacuated to Adenmarker. In Sudanmarker and Kenyamarker, the Italians conquered only some small areas around border villages.

After their offensives petered out, as in Egyptmarker, the Italians adopted a passive attitude and waited for the inevitable British counter-attack. Attention then shifted to the naval sphere.

The Italians had a small naval squadron based at Asmaramarker, Eritreamarker, called the Red Sea Flotilla. This was a threat to the British convoys heading up the Red Seamarker. 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 Hopemarker to return to Italymarker.

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. The Indian Army made up the mainstay of the British ground forces. In the end, two Indian divisions saw combat in Ethiopiamarker.

Another important aspect of the campaign to retake Ethiopiamarker was irregular forces. Major Orde Wingate, later to gain fame in Burmamarker 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 Ethiopiamarker began once reinforcements arrived from Egyptmarker. The arrival of the first Australian division in North Africa had allowed the release of the Indian 4th Infantry Division to be sent to East Africa. Along with the Indian 5th Infantry Division, it quickly took the offensive from Sudanmarker, the Indian divisions were supported by a thrust from Kenyamarker. An amphibious assault on British Somaliland was staged from Adenmarker. The three thrusts converged on the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababamarker, which fell early in May 1941.

The Italians made a final stand around the town of Amba Alagimarker, before they were finally defeated. Amba Alagimarker fell in mid-May, 1941. The last significant Italian forces surrendered at Gondarmarker in November 1941, receiving full military honors.

After December 1941, some Italians launched a limited guerrilla war in Ethiopia and Eritrea that lasted until the summer of 1943 when Italymarker left the war, (see Armistice with Italy).

War in the Western Desert

After Rommel's first offensive, a reorganisation of British command took place. In November 1941, the British Eighth Army was activated under 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 relieved 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 Tobrukmarker. Again Cyrenaica fell into British hands, this time the advance went as far as El Agheilamarker. However outside events again intervened to impede British efforts; as the British attack reached El Agheilamarker 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. By doing this he laid the seeds for his own downfall.

An operation had been planned to take Maltamarker, and thus reduce its strangulation of Rommel's supply lines. However, with his new offensive, Rommel was consuming materiel meant for the Maltamarker attack. It came down to a choice of attacking Maltamarker or supporting Rommel; Rommel's attack won out. At the time Maltamarker seemed neutralised, but this mistake was to come to haunt the Axis powersAxis 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 Libyamarker, and somewhat into Egyptmarker, but he pushed deep into the protectorate. Tobrukmarker fell quickly, and there was no repeat of the epic siege that Rommel's last advance had produced. A prepared defensive line at Mersa Matruhmarker was out flanked, and disaster beckoned. Ritchie was dismissed as Eight Army commander and Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, came forward to take command of it himself. After Matruh there was only one more defensive position before Cairomarker itself; El Alameinmarker.

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

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 Halfamarker, 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 Tunisiamarker.

Operation Torch and El Alamein

8 November, 1942 saw the first great amphibious assault of World War II. In Operation Torchmarker, an Anglo-American force landed on the shores of Algeriamarker and Moroccomarker. However, even in Algeriamarker, 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 Kebirmarker in 1940, anti-British feeling ran high among the French. This had been exacerbated by later British operations against Vichymarker-controlled territories at Dakarmarker, Syriamarker and Lebanonmarker, and the invasion of Madagascarmarker. 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 Moroccomarker. 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 the quick switch of sides was because the Germans had moved into unoccupied Francemarker, ending the Vichymarker regime, shortly after the North African garrisons had surrendered.

Once resistance in Algeriamarker and Moroccomarker was over, the campaign became a race. The Germans were pouring men and supplies into Tunisiamarker, 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.

Just before Operation Torchmarker, the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker was being fought in Egyptmarker. 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 Alameinmarker 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 Torchmarker. 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 Alameinmarker, 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 Tunisiamarker.

Battle for Tunisia

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 the First Army. The 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 the battle of Stalingradmarker.

The Italian campaign

The Italian Campaign was the name of Allied operations in and around Italymarker, from 1943 to the end of the war. Joint Allied Forces Headquarters AFHQ was operationally responsible for all Allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre, and it planned and commanded the invasion of Sicily and the campaign on the Italian mainland until the surrender of German forces in Italy in May 1945.

Invasion of Sicily

On 19 July 1943, Sicily was invaded. 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 Syracusemarker. 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 U.S. 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 Etnamarker; by this time the Germans and Italians were retreating. By 17 August all the Axis forces had evacuated the island, and Messinamarker was captured that day.

Surrender of Italy

After operations in Sicily, the Italian Government was teetering on the brink of collapse. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was ousted by the Grand Council of Fascism and, on orders of King Victor Emmanuel, Mussolini was taken into custody. Peace feelers were put out to the Allies. However, the invasion of Italy still proceeded.

On 3 September 1943, the first attacks were made directly across the Straits of Messina by Eighth Army in Operation Baytown. 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 Tarantomarker by the British 1st Airborne Division.

Also on 3 September, the King and Marshal Pietro Badoglio secretly signed an armistice with the Allies. On 8 September, the armistice was made public and a government was set up in southern Italy. What was known as the "Badoglio Government" joined the Allies against the Axis.

The main attack, Operation Avalanche, was delivered on 9 September at Salernomarker. 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. A subsidiary landing, Operation Slapstick, was also made on the same day at the Italian naval base of Tarantomarker by the British 1st Airborne Division, landed directly into the port from warships. News of the Italian surrender was broadcast as the troop convoys were converging on Salerno.

The Germans reacted extremely quickly to the Italian surrender. They disarmed the Italian troops near their forces and took up defensive positions near Salerno. Italian troops were disarmed throughout Italy and Italian-controlled areas in what was known as Operation Axis (Operation Achse).

The landings at Salerno were made by the U.S. Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark. It consisted of the U.S. 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 Naplesmarker to Barimarker 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.

About two months after his ouster, Mussolini was rescued by the Germans in Operation Oakmarker (Unternehmen Eichemarker). He set up the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy.

The Winter Line, Anzio and the Battle of Monte Cassino

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

With no sign of a breakthrough it was decided to attempt to outflank the Winter Line with an amphibious landing behind it. Operation Shingle involved landings at Anziomarker on the West coast on 23 January 1944. The assaulting formations were controlled by the U.S. 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 formed the left flank of the assault.

Again, like Salerno, there were serious problems with the landings. The commander, Lieutenant General John P. 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 counter-attack had been repulsed, the Anzio beachhead settled down to stalemate. The attempt at outflanking the Winter Line had failed. It was May before a breakout from the beachhead could be attempted.

Breakthrough to Rome

By May 1944, VI Corps had been reinforced to a strength of seven divisions. In the Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as Operation Diadem), a concerted attack was made at both Anzio and the Winter Line. The German defences finally cracked.

The front had been reorganised. V Corps was left on the Adriatic, but the rest of Eighth Army was moved over the Apenninesmarker 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.

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 decided instead to advance on Rome, 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 divisions (roughly a tenth of the Wehrmacht) escaped.

Rome fell on 5 June, and the pursuit continued well beyond the city, into northern Italy.

The Gothic Line and victory in Italy

By the end of August 1944, Allied forces had reached Pisamarker and Pesaromarker 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 for the invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon. The U.S. 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 Anconamarker, thus significantly shortening the allied supply line. The original aim had been to break through in the Po plain by the end of 1944, but that was nowhere near possible. December saw the line just south of Lake Comacchio, with the Germans holding a salient to the west. Fifth Army was in the high passes of the Apennines.

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 Canadian 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.

On 2 April 1945, the attack was launched and the advance was again slow at first.

By 20 April, Bolognamarker 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 Pomarker. The Germans were reduced in large part to scattered bands and bereft of heavy equipment.

On 28 April, Mussolini and a group of fascist Italians were captured by Italian partisans while attempting to flee Italy. Mussolini and about fifteen other fascists were executed and their bodies taken to Milanmarker for display.

On 29 April, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani surrendered the Italian LXXXXVII Army , the army of Mussolini's Italian Social Republic.

The progress in May was rapid. The American forces mopped up in the upper Po Valley and captured Genoamarker, the Polish forces captured Bolognamarker, and the British forces cleared the lower Po and reached the Yugoslav and Austrian borders.

On 2 May, the German forces in Italy capitulated. This occurred shortly before the main German surrender on 8 May.

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 acceded 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

British infantry land in 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 landing at Sword Beachmarker and 50th Infantry Division and 8th Armoured Brigade on Gold Beachmarker. One further assault formation was from the British Empire; 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on Juno Beachmarker. 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 Bridgemarker. 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 strategic surprise were achieved.

Most of 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 Cherbourgmarker.

In the east, the first major British objective was Caenmarker, an extremely tough nut to crack. The battle for the city turned into a long drawn-out battle. It eventually fell in July.

Breakout from Normandy

The American forces broke out in late July 1944, with Operation Cobra. Allied forces began an envelopment of the German forces remaining in Normandy. Hitler ordered a counter-attack on the seemingly vulnerable strip of territory that the US forces controlled on the Normandy coast, linking the First and Third Armies.

As American forces swept round to the south, British, Canadian and Polish forces pinned the Germans from the north. An pocket formed to the south of the town of Falaise. Up to 150,000 German soldiers were trapped and around 60,000 casualties were inflicted. Following the battle the Allied forces swept east. Parismarker fell at the end of August 1944, and by the end of September virtually the whole of France had been liberated.

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 Lorraine and Belgiummarker. 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 carried out almost entirely by American and Free French troops, 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 the Netherlands 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 Arnhemmarker. 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 XXX Corps 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 Antwerpmarker 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 Scheldtmarker was cleared by Canadian and Polish forces relatively quickly, but the thorny problem of the island of Walcherenmarker remained.

Walcheren guarded the northern approaches to Antwerp and thus had to be stormed. The dikes and dunes were bombed at three locations, Westkapelle, Veeremarker and Flushingmarker, 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

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 Allied airpower unlike in 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. 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 meaning the British army group had an important controlling role. The British XXX Corps also took part in the battle in a backstop role to contain any further German advances.

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 Rhinemarker in the British section was the clearing of the Roermond Triangle. The XIII Corps removed German forces from the west bank of the Roermarker during the second half of January, 1945.

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 Rhinemarker. 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 1945, the Canadian, British ,and American forces had closed up to the Rhinemarker in all but a small salient on their sectors of the front. That salient was reduced by five days later.

On 23 March, the operations to cross the Rhinemarker in the north began. The British Second and U.S. Ninth Armies took 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 Rhinemarker 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.In 15 April the British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen.

By 18 April, First Army had reached the coast in much of the Netherlandsmarker, isolating the German forces there. Second Army reached the Elbe the next day. The only moves in the Netherlandsmarker that the Canadian and Polish forces made for the remainder of the war were reducing a small amount of the coast of the IJsselmeermarker that had not been captured and liberating a small amount of territory around Groningenmarker. 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

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 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 times, with heavy losses being sustained by Bomber Command. A further force also joined the fray, with the Fifteenth Air Force and No. 205 Group RAF 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 were placed under the direction of General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Harris and his American counterparts fought hard against being placed under Eisenhower, 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 Dresdenmarker, which had been largely spared of heavy bombing raids due to its historic status, they asked for attacks to be made on the extensive transport links 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 Okinawamarker 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

The South-East Asian Theatre of World War II included the campaigns in India, Burmamarker, Thailandmarker, Indochina, Malaya and Singaporemarker. On 8 December 1941, the conflict in this theatre began when the Empire of Japanmarker invaded Thailand and Malaya from bases located in French Indochina. Action in this theatre officially ended on 9 September 1945 with the surrender of Japan.

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. On 8 December 1941, the Japanese launched invasions of Thailand, Malaya and Hong Kong.

On 10 December 1941, the first major setback to British power in the region was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by Japanese land-based planes. The sinking of these ships was triply significant. It represented the loss of the last Allied capital ships in the Pacific left after the Pearl Harbormarker disaster. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse were the only Allied modern or 'fast' battleships to be sunk in the entire war. It was the first time that a battleship had been sunk by enemy aircraft while 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 Singaporemarker. 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 Japanese offensive.

Indian, British, and Australian army forces in Malaya were larger in numbers than the other services. But they were equally ill-prepared and ill-led. They were committed in numbers both too small and too poorly positioned to counter the Japanese tactic of outflanking strongpoints through the jungle. Over a period of several weeks, the Allied ground forces steadily gave ground.

In early 1942, Singapore was critically unprepared for the assault that came. 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 15 February 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 Sumatramarker and Javamarker, but those islands also fell to the Japanese within a short time. British forces were forced back to India and Ceylon.

Burma Campaign

The Burma Campaign was fought primarily between British, Commonwealth, Chinesemarker, and Americanmarker forces against the forces of the Empire of Japanmarker and its auxiliary, the Indian National Army. The British and Commonwealth forces were drawn from the United Kingdom, British India (which included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh), East Africa, West Africa, Australia, Malaya, Singapore, and elsewhere.

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 Rangoonmarker, 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

A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma during 1943
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 Bengalmarker, 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 caused damage to Japanese communications, and they gathered intelligence. However, they suffered dreadful casualties, with only two thirds of the men who set out on the expedition returning. Those that returned 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 counter-attack 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

Sherman tanks and trucks advancing on Meiktila, March 1945.
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, Akyabmarker and Ramreemarker, 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 Mandalaymarker, and act as a diversion for the main striking force of IV Corps which would take Meiktilamarker 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. The next major campaign was planned to be the liberation of Malaya. 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

Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft warm up their engines before taking off.
Other warships from the British Pacific Fleet can be seen in the background.

In their final actions of the war, substantial British naval forces took part in the Battle of Okinawa (also known as Operation Iceberg) 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 Formosamarker 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


See also


Embed code:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address