Was Britain Really the Weak Allied Partner?
Wars are not always just conflicts of men and materiel; will and principles weigh in as well. In this context, the moral leadership of Britain during World War II proved invaluable to the Allied cause, even if it was often guided at times by imperial concerns. Britain was the only nation on either side of the war to have fought the first day of the war continuously for six years to the end of the conflict in the Pacific theater. London was the only major Allied power to have fought Germany alone (June 25, 1940–June 22, 1941). It was the only one of the three major Allied powers to have entered the war without being directly attacked, and did so on the principle of German violation of Polish territory.
Winston Churchill achieved roughly the right balance with Stalin after June 22, 1941. He accepted both that Soviet Russia, if adequately supplied, might swallow up the Wehrmacht and yet could never be a proper ally of the West in any postwar era, given its murderous record and its innate evil. If Churchill between 1941–43 was prone to bouts of effusive praise of the Red Army, he never doubted for a second that Soviet communism’s agenda was domination of the West, and that to trust Stalin, in the manner of the Roosevelt administration’s transitory delusions about a positive Soviet role in the postwar world, would eventually prove delusional—and dangerous.
We often forget that Britain entered the war with the greatest navy in the world, both as measured by collective tonnage and the number of warships. Its front-line fighter aircraft—the Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire—when used in selective and complementary roles over Britain matched Luftwaffe rivals. But it was not just Britain, but the British Empire that helped outproduce Japan and Italy combined, and in some areas, the Third Reich itself—consisting of the modern industrial nations Australia and Canada, and drawing on some of the resources, both human and material, of India and Africa.
More importantly, the British Empire was a huge conglomeration of some half-a-billion people—one quarter of the 1939 world population—many of whom served the British cause across the globe. Even a much smaller Britain itself (ca. 40 million people) alone entered the war with 80% of the GDP of the Third Reich (80 million). And with its colonies and dominions, the empire produced almost twice the economic output of the Germany. Given the contributions especially of Australia, Canada, India, and South Africa, the British eventually would produce more trucks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, light and heavy bombers, cargo and warships, than the three major Axis powers combined.
British contributions in terms of decipherment and codebreaking were transformational to the Allied cause. Many of its innovations like sonar and radar, and medicines such as penicillin and blood plasma, proved invaluable. Other British aid to America such as the adoption of the Sherman “firefly” tank, adapted with a far more powerful British 17-pounder, 3-inch anti-tank gun, or the use of the superior Rolls-Merlin engine in the American P-51 Mustang fighter. gave Americans parity and then occasional superiority over commensurate German tanks and fighters.
Imperial geography was critical for the Allied success. Britain itself was an unsinkable aircraft carrier, from which Europe was both bombed and liberated. Control of the Suez Canal made importation of vital resources to Germany and Italy impossible. Gibraltar was the valve that controlled traffic in and out of the Mediterranean. The inability to take British Malta eventually doomed the Axis effort in North Africa. British oil from Iran and Iraq were vital for the war effort and early on ensured that Britain would be far more energy independent than was Germany.
The Royal Navy was largely responsible for destroying the Kriegsmarine, both its surface and U-boat fleets. It was the British who convinced U.S. Admiral Ernest King that early transatlantic convoys without warship escorts were suicidal. In vain, the British correctly advised the Americans in 1942 that despite the use of the then superior B-17 and the much-heralded Norden bombsight, large bomber formations, in daylight unescorted raids over occupied Europe, and devoted to precision bombing alone, were simply not sustainable. Anticipating America’s entrance to the war, the British insisted in early 1941 that the Americans adopt a “Germany first” focus—against an enemy that had never attacked the U.S. while the Japanese would unleash devastating attacks against U.S. forces in the Philippines and Pearl Harbor—was the superior strategy that held the alliance together and ended the greater global existential threat four months earlier than the surrender of Japan.
The British and American relationship was often rocky, especially as the materiel and manpower of the U.S. began to outpace the British effort, and thus lessened British influence in the overall Allied war effort. In part, confident Americans did not fully appreciate that Britain had fought Hitler for 27 months before the United States joined, and in many ways had greatly weakened the German war machine. German air losses over France and during the Battle of Britain, and in North Africa, Greece, and Crete cost the Luftwaffe perhaps 4,500 planes destroyed or irreparably damaged, along with over 4,000 pilots, killed or captured. And such losses had substantially eroded German air capability when it was most needed on the eve of the Operation Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union.