Did Britain really stand alone?

In 1940 the British Empire contained a quarter of the world's population and a fifth of its landmass, all of which, bar Ireland, was also at war with Germany. Far from standing alone, as the war spread across the globe, Britain relied on the people, land and resources of its Empire to continue fighting.

It's often said that in the summer of 1940 Britain 'stood alone'. Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, and France had fallen before a seemingly unstoppable German army. All that was left was the plucky island of Britain.

Archive Clip: "This has left Britain alone at bay. The future of the whole civilized world rests on the defense of Britain."

Except that's not really true. In 1940 the British Empire controlled a quarter of the world's population and a fifth of its land mass. All of which, bar Ireland, was also at war with Germany. Thousands of aircraft, millions of men, and billions of pounds poured in from across the sea to keep Britain in the fight.

So did Britain really stand alone against Nazi Germany? How much did the empire contribute to allied victory? And did that contribution cause the empire to crumble after the second world war?

Before we answer those questions and more a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museum's YouTube channel for more videos just like this every two weeks.

It's definitely a bit of a myth that Britain stood alone during the Second World War. As an island nation Britain absolutely relied on its empire for people, for the land, for the resources, and that is really not always acknowledged.

Archive Clip: "This is Britain's colonial empire two and a half million square miles from the Antarctic to the tropics with dependencies in every continent and every ocean."

This map shows the global situation in the summer of 1940. Much of Europe had already fallen to the German war machine and Italy had just entered the war on their side opening new fronts in Africa and the Mediterranean. The following year Japan would enter the war opening yet more fronts in Asia and the Pacific. It's a daunting prospect, but of course, Britain wasn't alone it had its Empire and in a global war such as this with so many fronts it was the Empire that Britain relied on.

So what exactly did the British Empire provide? Well most obvious was manpower.

Archive Clip: "The alarm sounded and the many peoples of the Empire sprang to answer the call for service in the cause of liberty and justice. The men from Canada, from New Zealand, from Australia, from South Africa and many others fell in and the Empire marches."

As an island nation, Britain just did not have the manpower to be able to fight across so many global fronts. The Indian army provided a huge 2.5 million soldiers across the world. They were fighting in Burma, in North Africa and in Italy.

Archive Clip: "Other Indian troops took part in the campaign in East Africa displaying greatest skill and endurance combined with an aptitude for warfare in difficult country. Other regiments which went to Malaya and Burma have also given proof of heroism beyond all praise."

Even around 1,000 Cayman Island men, which is equivalent to about two-thirds of the adult male population, served in the British Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy. Without these men and without the hundreds of thousands of other men from across the Empire that joined the fight for the British war effort Britain would not have been able to continue fighting for so long.

People chose to join up and fight for many different reasons. Some volunteered out of loyalty to the British crown, others joined seeking adventure or to see new places, and some simply seeking financial reward.

However, people were also forced to enlist. Sometimes local leaders were given a quota of men they had to fill and there are examples of men who were literally kidnapped and taken away to join the army.

Billy Strachan was one of those desperate to join up. He sold his motorbike and his saxophone to pay for the long voyage from his native Jamaica to Britain where he trained as an air gunner.

Once Billy had completed 30 missions he was therefore entitled to arrest away from the fighting fronts. However, he asked to retrain as a pilot and he ended up flying Lancaster bombers for the rest of the war.

Of course, Britain didn't just need people. Those people had to be armed and supplied with tanks, aircraft, firearms, and ammunition. Under constant attack from the Luftwaffe, Britain not only had to replace lost aircraft and munitions but also had to ramp up production to better equip its forces.

We often think of America as the arsenal of democracy building and producing so much war material. But in early 1940 they weren't in the war yet and actually Britain was relying on places within its empire to help to build its production facilities.

By 1941 Canada had opened 150 new factories to support the war effort. Their annual output reaching 800 million pounds worth of goods and it wasn't just Canada.

At the other end of the world, Australia, once thought to be a land of sheep farmers, has taken to building heavy guns. In South Africa, land of gold fields and farmers, they developed a steel industry it produced armored cars. The pressure of war has brought to India the expansion of heavy industries. Steel mills, engineering plants, all bent towards the final destruction of the axis partnership.

We have some amazing photographs in the collection which show just the huge variety and diversity of people that were coming from across the British Empire to work in Britain's factories and Britain really really needed that manpower. Of course it also mobilized women to work in the factories and on the land, but it also needed as many people as it possibly could so that production could ramp up as much as possible.

Leary Constantine was a famous cricketer from Trinidad and Tobago and he worked at the Ministry of Labour during the war as a welfare officer. So he was responsible for West Indians employed in English factories. We have some film footage of him talking about the contributions of men from the West Indies in Britain's factories.

Archive Clip: "People from all walks of life including doctors, lawyers, reporters, from the West Indies they're being taught side by side with English men and women to operate all the latest types of machinery in the united effort to beat Hitler and his gang."

To produce all of these ships, planes, and tanks Britain of course needed raw materials which again came from across the Empire. Trinidad and Tobago were the allies' largest producers of oil. Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, produced sixty percent of Allied rubber and Nauru exported one million tons of phosphate annually. Nigeria sent tin, the Gold Coast sent manganese, and Gambia sent ground nuts. Anything you can think of the British Empire was mining, making, or growing it and sending it to Britain.

Archive Clip: "These men and women living all over the world are helping to fill the shopping basket of the British housewife."

But actually there's also another side to this story. The fact is that the workforce was expanded to meet the increased output and coerced and often unpaid labor occurred across Africa especially in Nigerian coal mines where an estimated 52,400 men were forced to work.

To pay for all these goods and the people who made them Britain also needed cash and lots of it. The huge costs of war left Britain almost bankrupt in 1945 and without the financial support of the Empire things could have been even worse. To India, Britain owed over 1.3 billion pounds by the end of the war and Canada famously gave Britain the so-called billion-dollar gift which was never repaid.

People also gave on an individual level as well. Even people who had very little to give were still giving what they could. For example, despite the major food shortages in Mauritius, the country banded together as individuals to buy an entire spitfire squadron and provided the first mobile canteen van to London during the blitz in 1940.

Finally, to move all of these men machines and raw materials Britain relied on a global supply chain of military bases, airstrips, and ports. They allowed resources to get where they needed to be quickly and safely. They also provided clear skies for pilots to train.

Archive Clip: "Southern Rhodesia began preparations for the great part she was to play in the Empire Air Training Scheme. United under the standard of the Royal Air Force, young men have come from every corner of the globe."

Archive Clip: "Canada became an immense training school a school where the pupils had to learn the grim game of spreading death in the skies."

There was a fantastic group of women who were part of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Their role was to fly aircraft from repair yards to forward bases and often men were quite surprised when they saw a Lancaster bomber or a Spitfire turn up with a female pilot inside. It was a small group of women, but they were a key part of that supply chain of that movement of materials and objects and people across the globe.

Britain simply couldn't have fought the Second World War without its Empire. Rather than standing alone against the Nazis the manpower, factories, raw materials, money, and global supply chain of the Empire kept Britain in the fight. But there is another side to this story.

Alongside the collaboration between Britain and its Empire, there was also exploitation. There was also racism and prejudice against these people that had given up so much to fight and work for Britain. These are stories that shouldn't be forgotten and do also need to be highlighted when we talk about Britain and its Empire.

Some were forced to enlist and fight or forced to work across the empire others were paid less than their British counterparts or barred from certain establishments and countries with little wealth of their own lent or gave away huge sums of money. Britain had also broken its promise to defend its Empire. Multiple territories like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Burma fell to the Japanese during the war. For many, all of this betrayed a Britain prioritizing its own survival over the needs of its Empire. Having given so much to the Allied cause, people in colonies like India saw a relationship that was not reciprocal.

Indian independence groups use this as evidence against the supposed invincibility of British rule. Widespread food shortages culminated in a devastating famine in Bengal that was largely ignored by the British. The imprisonment of thousands of Indians for political resistance fueled the demand for Britain to quit India.

After the war Britain once again looked to its Empire this time to rebuild the nation. People came from all over seeking new opportunities, but they were not given the welcome they deserved.

People like Alan Wilmot from Jamaica, who served in the RAF during the war. He arrived by ship on the 21st of December 1947 just with his stetson hat and suitcase wanting to look smart for future employers. But he faced discrimination and struggled to get work. He occasionally earned money washing dishes, but sometimes had to sleep on the London Underground just to have a roof over his head. Alan's story is one of many, where people's post-war expectations were not met.

The empire was crucial for Britain in the Second World War. The resources, money, and manpower it provided helped propel the Allies to victory in 1945. Yet just a few years later the Empire was falling apart. It was thanks to the Empire that Britain had survived the Second World War. The Empire itself did not.

Visit the Second World War Galleries at IWM London to explore the course and consequences of the conflict. Over 1500 collection items bring to life a war which affected millions of people from around the world, from Russia to New Zealand, to China and the Philippines. 

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The Battle of Singapore, February 1942
© IWM HU 2781
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