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December 04, 2006

Empire and War: The British Empire and the Second World War - Ashley Jackson

Posted by Jeremy Black

The British Empire and the Second World War
by Ashley Jackson
Pp. 580. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006
Hardback, 25

An impressive work that correctly argues that Britain was not "alone" in 1940-1, but, instead, that she was powerfully supported by the Empire, a support that posed a major strategic problem for her opponents. As a result, this is a very different history of the war, one in which there is a distinctive accent on participants, and chronology.

The range is impressive, for there is a full account of the role of the various parts of the Empire, and of the consequences for them. For example, an effective chapter on Sub-Saharan Africa indicates that the mobilisation of support was achieved by novel colonial engagements with ordinary Africans - in the form of propaganda, information dissemination, public lectures, wireless broadcasts and political appeals and, in the case of the army, by offering wage rates and conditions that many found attractive. The higher wages offered by the army were a problem for some settlers, who could not compete or did not wish to. In turn, the war greatly enhanced Africa's value in the eyes of its colonial rulers.

African forces made a particularly important contribution against the Italians in East Africa, but were only part of the wider imperial contribution. The outbreak of war was followed by the convoying of Australasian troops to Egypt, providing a vital fill-up to the British strategic reserve in the Middle East. The convoys were escorted by Australian warships, while the five destroyers in the Australian fleet were sent to join the British fleet in the Mediterranean at the outset of the war.

In Britain in 1940, the presence of Canadian forces, successfully convoyed across the Atlantic the previous winter, greatly strengthened the ability to repel attack. Canadian and New Zealand pilots played an important role in the Battle of Britain, while the Canadian navy also took the major part in convoying ships in the western Atlantic. Over five million fighting troops were raised by the Empire during the war, the largest number in India; while the absence of large-scale sustained opposition within the colonies to British rule ensured that military resources could be concentrated on war with the Axis.

The Empire also provided strategic depth. When, in the House of Commons on 4th June 1940, Churchill pledged to fight on, he added that, even if Britain was conquered, until the USA joined in

our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle.
This echoed the assurance offered by Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) that, in the unlikely event of civilisation collapsing in Europe before new barbarian inroads, it would be sustained "in the American world".

The commitment was impressive. Among the Allied nations only the Soviet Union and Britain enlisted a larger proportion of their people for military service than New Zealand, and the Dominion lost a greater proportion of its men dead than any other part of the Empire and Commonwealth. It also spent as much as Britain on the war as a proportion of its national income. On this basis, Canada spent far more than the USA.

Jackson deserves considerable congratulation for a most interesting work. It could have been strengthened by archival research in, for example, Canberra, but there is only so much that can be included. Readers of this journal will find much of value here.

Jeremy Black is author of World War Two: A Military History (Routledge, 2003).


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