Following World War II, Britain found itself weighed down by its postwar obligations, colonial holdings, and the outbreak of the Cold War. The British Army of the Rhine, comprising some 50,000 troops in three divisions, participated in the Allied occupation of Germany. An additional 3,000 troops were stationed in divided Berlin. There was often a colonial/Cold War overlap, such as when Britain faced problems with the Soviet Union in Germany while dealing with independence movements in India, Palestine, and Malaya.
The British Army at the close of World War II numbered 2.931 million men. By August 1947, it had shrunk to a little more than 750,000 men. Even so, the peace dividend was limited. Although military spending dramatically decreased in the initial postwar years, imperial overstretch combined with the Cold War led to defense expenditures taking up a significant portion of the total British budget; indeed, in the 1948–1954 period, defense allocations took up 22–42 percent of the aggregate budget. It was not until 1960 that conscription was ended, leading to a volunteer army of roughly 165,000 men, including 19,000 officers. During this time, the annual expenditure for arms was £1.6 million.
The times placed great stress on the British Army, occasionally leading to outbreaks of rebellion among the troops. For example, in 1946 at Muar Camp near Kuala Lumpur in Malaya, 258 men of the 13th Battalion Parachute Regiment, many of whom were veterans of the D-Day invasion, mutinied over living conditions. That same year, there was a Royal Air Force mutiny of nearly 50,000 men at bases in India, Ceylon, Singapore, and the Far East. The servicemen's complaints included dissatisfaction with working conditions as well as disagreement over British imperialism.
In 1946, anti-British riots broke out across India. For five days in August 1946, six British battalions skirmished with violent mobs in Calcutta, and hundreds of Indians were killed. Violence spread to Bombay, Delhi, and the Punjab region. India finally gained its independence on 15 August 1947, and six months later the last of the British soldiers departed, dramatically ending more than two centuries of British occupation. London now no longer controlled the Indian Army, reducing by half the troops it had available for colonial policing.
The Middle East also proved to be a policing problem. As Zionists worked toward establishing a Jewish homeland, British forces fought to restrict the flow of refugees from Europe to Palestine, provoking a violent response. The British 1st Infantry Division had to be reinforced by the 6th Airborne Division and the 3rd Infantry Division. Some of these reinforcements were diverted from European security duties in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). Ironically, some of the rebels had been part of the British-trained Jewish Brigade Group, which during World War II had fought in Italy under the British Eighth Army.
During the Korean War (1950–1953), the postwar British Army peaked at more than 440,000 men. Sixteen battalions of British infantry participated in the fighting. Armored and artillery units also played a key role. Britain's only role in the Vietnam War that followed was to provide a jungle-warfare training team in Malaya.
In Egypt, a British presence protected the Suez Canal, an occupation that was also met with resistance. During 1950–1956, more than 50 British servicemen were killed, leading to retaliatory incidents. In March 1956, the last of the British troops left the Suez Canal zone. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the British-owned Suez Canal Company, the British government called up 20,000 reservists and bolstered its forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel, France, and Britain then combined to attack Egypt but were pressured by the United States and the United Nations (UN) to withdraw.
In 1961, Kuwait became independent and was immediately threatened by the Iraqi regime under General Abdul Kassem, leading to the deployment of British troops. The incident was a prelude to the Persian Gulf War three decades later, when British forces totaled 45,000 men. In the 1982 Falklands (Marianas) War, a British task force of 27,000 personnel arrived in the Falkland Islands on 117 ships and defeated an Argentine garrison of 12,000 men.
In the various deployments and military operations of the Cold War era, more than 3,500 British soldiers were killed and an additional 17,000 wounded. Following the end of World War II, 1968 marked the first year in which no British soldiers died in combat. The postwar tally shows that the British Army suffered 223 dead and 478 wounded in Palestine, 489 dead and 961 wounded in Malaya, 865 dead and 2,589 wounded in Korea, 12 dead and 69 wounded in Kenya, 79 dead and 414 wounded in Cyprus, 12 dead and 63 wounded in Suez, 59 dead and 123 wounded in Malaysia, 52 dead and 510 wounded in Aden, 225 killed and 777 wounded in the Falklands, and 87 dead and 1,700 wounded in the Persian Gulf.
During the Cold War, the British Army primarily tended to unrest in its former colonial holdings, problems that were directly and indirectly related to the larger struggle between the East and the West. Britain's resolve to commit troops around the world in crisis situations played a role in containing communism by limiting opportunities for Kremlin designs. By the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Britain partnered with the United States in opposing Saddam Hussein, the Soviet Union had practically reached its end as leaders of the West proclaimed a new world order.
Pimlott, John, ed. British Military Operations, 1945–1985. New York: Military Press, 1984.; Stanhope, Henry. The Soldiers: An Anatomy of the British Army. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.