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British Empire in World War II

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Title: British Empire in World War II  
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British Empire in World War II

A propaganda poster commemorating the joint war effort of the British Empire and Commonwealth, 1939.

When the United Kingdom (UK) declared war on Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II, it controlled, to varying degrees, many crown colonies, protectorates across the world and the Indian Empire. The UK also maintained unique political ties to four independent dominions: Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. The fifth dominion at the time, Ireland, remained neutral throughout the war.

The cooperation between the countries of the British Commonwealth (a name popularised during World War I, which became official after the Balfour Declaration of 1926),[1] in terms of personnel and materiel was critical to the war effort. However, it also proved difficult to coordinate the defence of far-flung countries from simultaneous attacks by the Axis Powers. In part this was exacerbated by disagreements between over priorities and objectives, as well as the deployment and control of joint forces. The governments of the UK and Australia, in particular, turned to the United States for support. Although the British Empire and the Commonwealth countries all emerged from the war as victors, and the conquered territories were returned to British rule, the costs of the war and the nationalist fervour that it had stoked became a catalyst for the decolonisation which took place in the following decades.

Pre-war plans for defence

From 1923, defence of British colonies and protectorates in East Asia was centred on the "Singapore strategy". This made the assumption that Britain could send a fleet to its naval base in Singapore within two or three days of a Japanese attack, while relying on France to provide assistance in Asia via its colony in Indochina and, in the event of war with Italy, to help defend British territories in the Mediterranean.[2]

During the 1930s, a triple threat emerged for the British Commonwealth in the form of right-wing, militaristic governments in Germany, Italy and Japan.[3] Germany threatened the British mainland itself, while Italy and Japan's imperial ambitions looked set to clash with British imperial presence in the Mediterranean and Far East respectively. However, there were differences of opinion within the UK and the Dominions as to which posed the most serious threat, and whether any attack would come from more than one power at the same time.

Declaration of war against Germany

Sir Robert Menzies broadcasting to Australia the news of the outbreak of war, 1939

The British declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939 automatically committed the India, the Crown colonies and the protectorates, but the 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted autonomy to the Dominions so each decided their course separately. Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies immediately joined the British declaration, believing that it applied to all subjects of the Empire and Commonwealth. New Zealand's Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage followed suit within a few hours, having consulted his Cabinet. South Africa took three days to make its decision, as the Prime Minister General J. B. M. Hertzog favoured neutrality but was defeated by the pro-war vote in the Union Parliament, led by General Jan Smuts, who then replaced Hertzog. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared support for Britain on the day of the British declaration, but also stated that it was for Parliament to make the formal declaration, which it did so one week later. Ireland, however, remained neutral.[4]

Initially the contribution to the fighting in Europe came in the form of manpower, food supplies and training. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa provided troops for the defence of Egypt, where British troops were outnumbered four to one by the Italian armies in Libya and Ethiopia.[5]

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (also known as the "Empire Air Training Scheme") was established by the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK resulting in:

  • joint training at flight schools in Canada, Southern Rhodesia, Australia and New Zealand;[6]
  • formation of new squadrons of the Dominion air forces, known as "Article XV squadrons" for service as part of Royal Air Force operational commands, and;
  • in practice, the pooling of RAF and Dominion air force personnel, for posting to both RAF and Article XV squadrons.

Crisis in the Mediterranean

In June 1940, France surrendered to invading German forces, and Italy joined the war on the Axis side, causing a reversal of the Singapore strategy. Winston Churchill, who had replaced Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister the previous month, ordered that the Middle East and the Mediterranean were of a higher priority than the Far East to defend.[7] Australia and New Zealand were told by telegram that they should turn to the United States for help in defending their homeland should Japan attack:[8]

Without the assistance of France we should not have sufficient forces to meet the combined German and Italian navies in European waters and the Japanese fleet in the Far East. In the circumstances envisaged, it is most improbable that we could send adequate reinforcements to the Far East. We should therefore have to rely on the United States of America to safeguard our interests there.[9]

Commonwealth forces played a major role in North and East Africa following Italy's entry to the war, participating in the invasion of Italian Libya and Somaliland, but were forced to retreat after Churchill diverted resources to Greece and Crete.[10]

Fall of Singapore

The Battle of Singapore was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II when the Empire of Japan invaded the Allied stronghold of Singapore. Singapore was the major British military base in South East Asia and nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East". The fighting in Singapore lasted from 31 January 1942 to 15 February 1942.

It resulted in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.[11] About 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the Malayan campaign. Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British history.[12]


The front page of The Montreal Daily Star announcing the German surrender. May 7, 1945

On 8 May 1945, the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. The formal surrender of the occupying German forces in the Channel Islands was not until 9 May 1945. On 30 April Hitler committed suicide during the Battle of Berlin, and so the surrender of Germany was authorized by his replacement, President of Germany Karl Dönitz. The act of military surrender was signed on 7 May in Reims, France, and ratified on 8 May in Berlin, Germany.

In the afternoon of 15 August 1945, the Surrender of Japan occurred, effectively ending World War II. On this day the initial announcement of Japan's surrender was made in Japan, and because of time zone differences it was announced in the United States, Western Europe, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia/New Zealand on 14 August 1945. The signing of the surrender document occurred on 2 September 1945.


World War II confirmed that Britain was no longer the great power it had once been, and that it had been surpassed by the United States on the world stage. Canada, Australia and New Zealand moved within the orbit of the United States. The image of imperial strength in Asia had been shattered by the Japanese attacks, and British prestige there was irreversibly damaged.[13] The price for India's entry to the war had been effectively a guarantee for independence, which came within two years of the end of the war, relieving Britain of its most populous and valuable colony. The deployment of 150,000 Africans overseas from British colonies, and the stationing of white troops in Africa itself led to revised perceptions of the Empire in Africa.[14]

See also


  1. ^ [1]W. David McIntyre, 1999, "The Commonwealth"; in Robin Winks (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume V: Historiography, Oxford University Press, p. 558.
  2. ^ Louis, p. 315
  3. ^ Brown, p. 284
  4. ^ Brown, pp. 307–9
  5. ^ McIntyre pp. 336–7
  6. ^ Brown, p. 310
  7. ^ Louis, p. 335
  8. ^ McIntyre p. 339
  9. ^ Brown, p. 317
  10. ^ McIntyre p. 337
  11. ^ Smith, Colin (2006). Singapore Burning: Heroism and Surrender in World War II. Penguin Group.  
  12. ^ Churchill, Winston (1986). The Hinge of Fate, Volume 4. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 81. ISBN 0395410584
  13. ^ McIntyre, p. 341
  14. ^ McIntyre, p. 342


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