Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Great Britain, Army

For many of the British army's commanding officers who had served as infantry subalterns during World War I 20 years earlier, the events of September and October 1939 must have conjured up a powerful sense of déjà vu. Then, as in 1914, a small expeditionary force of two corps assembled to take up position on the left of the French line in Flanders, awaiting the inevitable German advance across the Belgian plain. Decades-old plans for entrenchment and the tactics of a static war of attrition were dusted off and reissued. However familiar the first months of World War II may have been to these veterans of Arras and Ypres, however, their army's war was to take a dramatically unexpected turn less than a year later when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was ignominiously ejected from the European mainland after just a few weeks of sharp, mobile combat. They were not to return for another four years. Of the seven army-strength formations raised by Britain during the period 1939–1945, only one, the 2nd, was to fight in northwest Europe again. The bulk of Britain's land operations were conducted far from its old World War I trench lines—in the Western Desert of North Africa, Sicily and Italy, the Balkan peninsula, Norway, Malaysia, Burma, and the northeast frontier of India. Such a fast-paced global struggle required a very different kind of army from that of World War I, with much greater technical specialization and more attention paid to the thorny problems of supply, communications, and control.

Although many key aspects of army life, such as the centuries-old regimental system, were carried forward mostly unaltered into World War II, the British army of 1939–1945 was to a large degree a hurriedly reinvented institution. This ad hoc metamorphosis was a necessary reaction to the new conditions of warfare, for which the interwar years had inadequately prepared the army's leaders and structures. After the demobilization that followed the 1918 armistice, the British army had quickly returned to its traditional role as a small imperial security force made up of long-service regulars, the part-time home reserve of the Territorial Army (TA), and a variegated auxiliary of colonial troops overseas. The problems of policing such trouble spots of the Empire as Palestine and India were far removed from the new theories of mechanized breakthrough warfare being discussed by forward-thinking military strategists in Europe, and the army languished in its attachment to the bayonet and the quick-firing rifleman—important for crowd control in overseas colonies, but less useful on the modern battlefield.

There were, in spite of this, significant attempts to bring the army up to date. Captain B. H. Liddell Hart's revised infantry manual stressed the "expanding torrent" tactics of mobility and exploitation, and Colonel J. F. C. Fuller called for fresh thinking on tank warfare. The Experimental Mechanized Force established briefly in the late 1920s was the world's first prototype for the armored division. But a combination of Treasury parsimony and knee-jerk opposition from the "Colonel Blimps" who dominated the army's upper echelons prevented any profound reform until the eve of war, when—prompted by the dynamic but ill-fated Minister of War Leslie Hore-Belisha—the government finally accepted the need for rearmament funding and a peacetime conscription bill. The doubling in size of the Territorial Army in March 1939 and passage of the National Service Act a month later provided for hundreds of thousands of new recruits, but in the short term these developments only added to the administrative confusion of a force hurriedly trying to reequip for a new continental commitment in alliance with France.

At the outbreak of war, the army's manpower stood at 897,000, the regulars and TAs having merged by government decree. Five regular infantry divisions were available in the United Kingdom for transportation to France. Two infantry divisions were deployed in Palestine suppressing the Arab revolt; the Western Desert Force (WDF) in Egypt had a fledgling armored division (another was forming in the UK, and would eventually join the BEF); and the remainder of the Empire was garrisoned either by individual battalions of regulars, units from the 300,000-strong Indian army, or indigenous militia like the King's African Rifles (KAR) in Kenya and Uganda. From these modest beginnings, the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proposed to recruit an army of 55 divisions (32 British, the remainder Indian and Dominion) for what it suggested would be at least a three-year war. There was as yet little clear plan as to where these divisions would be employed, or when.

Political control of the armed forces was exercised during hostilities through the War Cabinet, a subset of the full cabinet that liaised with the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COS) representing the uniformed heads of the army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force (RAF). The chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) was the army's representative on the COS and, after the appointment of General Sir Alan Brooke in 1941, its permanent chairman. The CIGS had a vice-chief responsible for operations, plans, intelligence, and training and a deputy chief in charge of general organization. With the adjutant general (personnel), quartermaster general (logistics), and master general of ordnance, these men collectively made up the Army Council, which was chaired by the secretary of state for war. The War Office retained nominal ministerial responsibility for the army. However, Winston L. S. Churchill, appointed Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in May 1940, preferred to deal with the uniformed chiefs directly, and so Whitehall was relegated to a purely administrative function.

Operational control in the United Kingdom was vested in General Headquarters (GHQ) Home Forces, and the country was divided into a series of command districts: South Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, Scottish, Eastern, London, and Northern Ireland. Various overseas GHQs were established in the Middle East, East Africa, Persia, and Iraq and in other theaters according to the vagaries of war; the commander in chief of the Indian army held sway across the Indian subcontinent. In 1939 and 1940, there was an unsuccessful attempt to create a viable Anglo-French Supreme War Council, but as the multinational character of the war developed with the entry of the United States in December 1941, command of British forces was increasingly delegated to pan-Allied authorities such as the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the strategic level and Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) and South-East Asia Command (SEAC) at the operational level.

The spiritual core of the army remained the 5 guard and 64 line infantry regiments that performed a unique administrative, but nontactical, function. Following the pattern established in World War I, the army expanded not by creating new regiments but by adding battalions to existing regiments, some of which traced their origins to the seventeenth century. The heart of the regiment was an organizational depot located at the home barracks, while its component field battalions served scattered across the world in various brigade formations. It was uncommon for two or more of the same regiment's battalions to serve closely together at the front.

Regimental tradition was a powerful reinforcement of esprit de corps, particularly as most regiments had a regional recruitment base. But as the war progressed and manpower became scarcer, the territorial associations of each regiment were weakened, with a corresponding loss of group identity. The remainder of the army was similarly divided into administrative units with regimental or corps-level designations but no tactical roles. The Royal Armoured Corps was a composite of the old cavalry regiments, now mechanized, and the Royal Tank Regiment. The Royal Corps of Signals handled communications for the entire army down to individual battalion levels, where company signalers took over. Some of the services, such as the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, had traditions and battle honors every bit as distinguished as those of the infantry; others, such as the Reconnaissance Corps, were newly created and short-lived. The most important noncombat services were the Royal Army Service Corps, which carried supplies to troops in the field; the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), responsible for the procurement and maintenance of equipment; and the Royal Army Medical Corps, which handled the sick and wounded.

The greater emphasis in World War II on technical and logistical matters caused a much larger proportion of manpower to be allocated to the "tail" (as opposed to the "teeth") of the army than was the case during World War I. Some support formations became so unwieldy that they gave birth to spin-off services of their own, such as the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which was formed from the RAOC in 1942. Other notable services handled pay, military policing, spiritual affairs (the Royal Army Chaplains), intelligence, catering, physical training, and education—the last being accused by many conservative officers of foisting socialist ideology onto the rankers, precipitating the Labour Party's 1945 election victory! Eventually a General Service Corps was created to process incoming recruits and provide basic training and ultimate service allocation. The all-women's Auxiliary Territorial Service played an increasingly critical role in support of the regulars, as did the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry on the medical front.

Tactically, each late-war British army was divided into four corps, each with two infantry divisions and one armored division. An infantry division of 18,000 men consisted of three brigades of three battalions apiece, an independent machine-gun battalion, three Royal Artillery (RA) field regiments, and an antitank and antiaircraft regiment, plus the usual supporting attachments of signalers, engineers, and so on. Tank brigades were often temporarily attached to infantry divisions on an as-needed basis. The full-strength infantry battalion had four rifle companies of three platoons apiece, a headquarters company, and a support company. The structure of armored divisions changed markedly throughout the war as experiments to find the best mixture of tanks to other services evolved. In 1939, there were two armored brigades per division, each of three regiments, with a motorized infantry battalion, field artillery regiment, and accompanying support units. By D day, this had changed to a single armored brigade of three tank regiments (78 tanks per regiment) plus a fully mechanized infantry battalion in armored personnel carriers, a motorized infantry brigade in trucks, an armored reconnaissance regiment, one or two RA field regiments, and a plethora of antitank, antiaircraft, and other support formations, for a total of 343 armored vehicles at full strength.

Two forces existing out of the standard army structure, special services and the Home Guard, deserve mention. The special services or "Commando" brigades were created after the Battle of France as Britain's only way of directly striking back at the Germans on the European continent. Although their hit-and-run tactics were of limited utility in the absence of an Allied second front, they played an important propaganda role in the testing years before Operation overlord and later became a useful auxiliary to the conventional armies fighting in France and the Low Countries. Certain theaters of war spawned their own commandolike units, such as the Special Air Service (SAS) in the Western Desert and Orde Wingate's Chindits in Burma. The Parachute Regiment, which by the end of the war was two divisions strong, was originally a part of special services. The Home Guard, formed by a call for underage and over-age volunteers after Dunkerque, was originally intended as a last-ditch militia in the event of a German invasion of the British Isles. As the threat of attack receded, the Home Guard's function adapted to take over security and antiaircraft duties in the home islands from the regular army and to act as a training service for those about to be conscripted. At its peak in 1943, there were 1.7 million Home Guardsmen in 1,100 battalions.

By the end of the war, more than 3.5 million men and women had served in the regular forces, with the peak of 2.9 million reached in 1945. Eleven armored, 34 infantry, and 2 airborne divisions had been created. Other Imperial forces had expanded at an even greater rate: the Indian army was over 2.5 million men strong by V-J Day. Despite its early muddles and campaign disasters, the army had matured to become one of the world's preeminent fighting forces and a signal contributor to the ultimate Allied victory. It had accomplished this with casualties of 264,443 killed, 41,327 missing, and 277,077 wounded.

Alan Allport


Further Reading
Brayley, Martin, and Mike Chappell. The British Army, 1939–1945. London: Osprey, 2001.; Chandler, David, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994.; Crang, Jeremy. The British Army and the People's War, 1939–1945. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.; Fraser, David. And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.; French, David. Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919–1945. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.; Graham, Dominick. Against Odds: Reflections on the Experiences of the British Army, 1914–45. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.; Place, Timothy. Military Training in the British Army, 1940–1944: From Dunkirk to D-Day. London: Frank Cass, 2000.
 

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