Monday, September 9, 2013

"Britain's War Machine" and recent British portrayals of their own role in World War Two

In a recent post I was asked to discuss whether the US could, possibly, have been more valuable to the Allies as an 'arsenal of democracy' than as a combatant. How the British and their allies might have won anyway. I am going to look at the confused response of some people to my answer, with a further discussion of how I could consider such conclusions given the offerings of many, particularly British, historians since the war about British 'weakness'.

The generally accepted version of the story is that Britain in World War Two was too backward, poor and insignificant to have won without help. This appears to be a story constructed by British writers and propagandists for their own purposes, and is probably as useless a fictional construct as Holywood presentations which suggest that the US won the war almost single handedly, and with no help from anyone else at all, or Russian apologists suggesting the same.

(In reality the US was no more capable of winning the war without Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth, than Britain was without Russia, or Russia was without Anglo-American support. Any one of those nations on their own was incapable of facing all three Axis powers, and could not have won a world war against them all unaided. Nor has there ever been any power in history who could successfully take on any other three major unaided. Full stop, and end of story.... For those who have some fantasy that the US has ever been a unique 'superpower' consider what would happen if China, Russia and Iran all got uppity at once today, and NATO and Japan and the rest of America's allies gave the type of two fingered salute that the US gave British attempts at peacekeeping in the 1930's? Well you don't have to really, just watch Obama trying to workout what to do about Syria!)

My particular point with this post being that the British have rubbished their own wartime record and achievements since halfway through the war..

Now I used to think that this was mostly the traditional British self deprecatory understatement. Whereas an American or a Russian or Frenchman boasts about their superiority and how much their nation has achieved, a typical English stiff upper lip type always downplays their efforts. (Dawn French does a good take-off of upper crust lunacy in a comedy skit where she accidentally chops of a finger. Having fed it to a dog, she realises the proper British thing to do is give the other dogs a similar treat, and starts chopping off more fingers... If you think this is a joke, go and find the story of how the nutty British general Carton di Wiart pulled off some fingers at an aid station in WW1 so he could get back to the front faster...) But a new writer has made me consider the possibly more sinister motives behind this dismissie attitude.

Not just self deprecation, but consciously targetted and frighteningly nationalistic political propaganda by self righteous 'reformers'... (My favourite historical villains.)

I have just finished a book by David Edgerton called 'Britain's War Machine', which has enormous fun poking holes at all this 'weakness' nonsense. It starts with images like the famous dramatic cartoon of a British soldier standing defiantly against a dark and stormy sea shouting "all right, alone", which he contrasts with the more accurate cartoon of British and Dominion soldiers sitting relaxed on the beach saying "poor old Empire, just the 500 million of us". It is a fair point about propaganda versus reality.

More interestingly, it is not just a matter of the first being motivational propaganda at the time to buck up the population, while the second was a bit dangerous at the time for offering excessive complacency. Instead the emphasis of the book is on those who even after the war pretend that the first is reality, and consciously try to cover up the second. (The British politicians  and dons were not alone in this game. Australia's Curtin government started an invasion scare campaign in 1942 through ignorance, but kept it up for its motivational value during the war even after they knew it was false, and many historians have continued the baseless myth since… often for party political purposes.)

Just to explain the concept of why we can't take the image of 'poor little Britain' seriously... Britain was one of the richest nations in the world in 1940, and in terms of living standards per head, the Dominions, and even much of the Empire, were right up there with her. None of the Axis powers came close to a similar standard of living. In terms of modern industrial output for instance, 30% of Germans were still involved in agriculture, whereas only 8% of the British workers were.

Whereas the Axis powers planned to fight a traditional mass conscription war, Britain expected to fight her traditional 'industrial power and money' conflict, and let other people do as much of the fighting as possible. Ie: a concentration on increasing the capacities of allies and undermining the capacities of enemies through industrial and economic might, rather than on removing men from industry to field huge armies in the field. (The approach used against Napoleon and - to a lesser extent - in World War One writ large, and indeed the approach copied by the United States in World War Two and the Cold War.)

British industry alone was already outproducing the Axis powers in ships, aircraft, tanks, and most other war fighting tools by 1940. Add in the Dominions (an extra 20 million Anglo's with substantial industry of their own - particularly Canada), and the Empire (450 million assorted races in nations dominating much of the worlds resources, trade, and industry), and the idea that Britain could do what it had always done seemed perfectly reasonable.

In fact British investments in other parts of the world - particularly South America and the Middle East - and British domination of the sea lines of transport (not to mention US bias to trading with Brits not Axis via these routes) gave an overwhelming advantage in access to the worlds productive resources.

Even in sheer production terms, Britain alone outproduced the Germans and Italians (and Japanese) in ships, warships, tanks, aircraft, and most munitions (except heavy artillery and infantry arms  - not unreasonably since the Axis were into mass armies while the Commonwealth was not). Given access to American production by purchase or Lend-Lease, and much of the rest of the world's resources by purchase or loan (Sterling Balance was effectively a technique of allowing much purchase now with promise of repayment from accumulated investment funds later), Britain was 100% correct believing winning the war was practically inevitable, even after the fall of France.

But this strength is not what British historians and propagandists portray after the war. Instead the 'Britain alone' myth is backed up with an unrealistic 'poor little Britain' playing 'David against Goliath' combined with a very nasty version of British nationalism that pretends Britain really was alone.

I have always suggested that post war the British taxpayer had completely lost interest in paying for the 'privilege' of being the world's policeman, and was more than willing to let the stupid Americans give it a try (and see how they liked being universally condemned as arrogant by nations they were paying to protect...) I felt that the consequences were unfortunate (particularly for colonies abandoned to an independence they were not ready for... see any African or Asian dictatorship of the last 50 years), but that the motivation was fairly understandable. But I had not much considered the more cynical perspective.

David Edgerton argues that the 'Socialist' parties in Britain went 'Nationalist' by 1945, and won power on a completely un-British 'Little England/Britain' wave of truly offensive propaganda. He suggests that the chattering classes rewrote the international achievements of the British Commonwealth to portray a 'Britain Alone' perspective, and then used that to justify protectionism, and nationalism of industry, and all the other disasters that Labour governments inflicted on the British economy for the next 30 odd years. 

His argument is extremely detailed, and fairly convincing. He particularly notes that the British Labour parties 1935 platform endlessly repeated the word 'socialism', while their 1945 platform had a singe mention of that word, and endlessly repeated 'nationalism'. In fact the nationalisation program of industry and energy and health, and all sorts of other things that the socialist parties experimented with after the war, used the 'National' or 'British' title endlessly.

Edgerton points out that this centralised economy approach was in fact a pursuit of Soviet or Nazi ideals in how a state should work, and completely opposite to the way the British capitalist colossus that effectively dominated world trade pre 1942 had always worked.

He did not spend much time on the effects of attempting a centralised economy. But British living standards relative to the rest of the world fell throughout the 20th century, and faster post war than interwar, so it is likely that this had as much - if not more - to do with misunderstood socialism and incompetent centralisation as with any losses from the wars themselves. (I will do another post on this concept later).

His main point is that the fantasy of poor little Britain against the big bad world is rubbish. Until Japan joined the war, Britain was the world's leading military industrial power, with world's most advanced technology (including the world's leading nuclear bomb program, radar, penicillin, proximity fuse, and many other things that were passed on to Americans to continue development of as part of the United Nations approach to the rationalisation of wartime resources). Britain was eventually almost certainly going to beat Germany and Italy, even if it was only by arming Russia.

(In December 1941, one of the reasons Malaya was in danger was because 249 Valentine and 187 Matilda II tanks, delivered to Russia instead of to British troops in Egypt and Asia, were providing something like 30-40% of the medium/heavy tanks defending Moscow. Fighters like Hurricanes and British supplied Tomahawks were probably 16% of Russian defenders at this vital point. Britain probably lost Malaya and Burma - possibly the Netherlands East Indies too - because of such resources sent to Russia. The effect on the British Empires war effort was very bad, but possibly not as bad as Moscow falling in 1941 would have been. Was it a good choice? From whose perspective? British interests, or world history?)

After 1942 things changed of course. The United States became the leading military industrial power by 1945, which for some reason has been labelled a British 'decline'. Again, he would say that this is rubbish.

Britain came out of World War Two as the world's second largest military and industrial economy, and the second largest international trading power. (And that is excluding Empire and Commonwealth resources... Canada and Australia also coming in the top ten world military industrial powers in their own right.) 

Now I have always argued that the un-natural economic dominance that the tiny Britain achieved after the end of the Napoleonic wars could hardly be considered an inevitable or sustainable right. No nation that small can remain so dominant forever. That would be extremely unnatural.

For the same reason I have never felt that the unnatural economic dominance that the United States achieved after World War Two was sustainable. As did Britain in 1815, they dominated over ruined economies, not over healthy trading rivals. I have never accepted  that the modern 'decline' in US power is anything but a natural correction.

But you will note that these two liberal democratic capitalist states still vastly outweigh the power their respective populations should have in world affairs. (Despite unnecessary damage done by socialist ideology in Britain.) 

Edgerton makes the very interesting point that the reason British industry was still so dominant in world affairs in 1939-1942 was because US industry was still being kept artificially repressed by the stupidities of the New Deal. (Whereas capitalist free market economies around the world largely recovered by 1936 from the Depression, the US economy was kept in recession until war in 1942 released it from the fell hand of Roosevelt's socialist command economy claptrap... another post...)

He points out that Britain during the war could increase its labour force by only about 6-8% above 1939 levels. Britain hadn't all that much flex in reserve. It's economy was too efficiently active already. (By the way he points out that despite propaganda about the wonders of US mass production, British man hours per ship were way below US for the same ships for the entire war... except for a couple of US companies that concentrated only on one very simple design - the British Liberty ship - where they came to about British standards by 1944. It was therefore very sensible for the more skilled British labour force to build more complex ships, and leave the simplest mass production to the less skilled American workforces. He has similar interesting statistics on aircraft factories and other industries which the British 'intelligentsia'  has written off as poor performers during the war in probably self deprecating and self serving propaganda of their own.)

By contrast the United States was so underemployed as late as 1941 - with as many as 20 million workers unemployed - that they increased their workforce participation by up to 50% during the war. (20 million unemployed being almost as much as the entire British workforce at full employment.) His argument being that Britain did not decline at all, it is just that the US finally got on its feet and started reaching the military/industrial standards its vastly larger workforce should have been capable of many years earlier.

The replacement of Britain with the United States as the leading military/industrial power at some stage was both inevitable, and logical. All that was needed was for the US to finally shoulder its part of the burden of international peacekeeper. At that point a much larger industrial population should, inevitably, have a much greater role. No decline on Britain's part necessary at all. (In fact had the US stepped up to the plate when Wilson tried to get it too after WWI, then an earlier 'special relationship' would have easily prevented most of the things that eventually led to WWII!)

In fact the question is why Britain was still, in 1944 as much as in 1939, so far ahead of the Axis and other powers in military/industrial power. Why could Britain outproduce all 3 Axis and all their conquests and slave workers, even without the Commonwealth? Why were the rest so inefficient?

Or perhaps more importantly, why does Britain downplay this power so much? What did the chattering/intellectual classes hope to achieve with the whole 'Britain alone', 'David vs Goliath', 'incompetent bumbling', and 'pathetic and needy' dialogue they so carefully crafted between the 1930's and the 1980's?

The truth is, that much British history written about this period tells worse lies than the contemporary Australian or American or Russian history of the period tells about their countries, and does so for reasons that should be examined for political motivation.

It is clear that some academics have done so to pursue their idealistic left wing agenda's, or to pretend that Socialism isn't as destructive to economies as it clearly is: but unfortunately far more have done so because they are either not bright enough, or not brave enough, to challenge the house of cards they found their academic careers on.

But perhaps we should investigate what negative effects these lies eventually had on such minor things as British living standards, Keynsian economics, third world development, and our understanding of how history works? 


  1. I found BWM a useful corrective to the myth that British industry during WWII consisted of little old men tapping away at pieces of metal in their garden sheds, while the US were the only nation to use mass-production methods. In reality it seems that British industry was more efficient that that of the US across the board, despite being bombed, blockaded and cut off from its markets in Europe.

    1. Dear Anonymous Sept 21, thanks for the comment.

      Efficiency for a given number of workers certainly. I suppose it is another question whether what they were producing was really important?

      There are still many who would argue that the immense resources thrown into the bombing campaign could have been better used elsewhere.

      Then too there is the problem that the casualties of the bombing campaign were the best and brightest young men who were subsequently not available for post war rebuilding... possibly having a greater effect on long term decline of living standards thatn having put similar resources into getting 'poor bloody infantry' killed instead?

    2. Hi Nigel

      Thanks for your response. I certainly wouldn't deny that there was a considerable waste of effort involved in British war production, but it seems relatively less than in the US, USSR, Germany and Japan. BWM makes it clear that the British approach to aircraft production (improvements incorporated on the production line) was a better approach than that used by the US: (improvements incorporated after the aircraft were built).

      It's often claimed that the US had something like 40% of world manufacturing output while Britain only had about 10%, yet Britain produced roughly 50% of the US's output despite labouring under a number of disadvantages that America didn't have. I've concluded that the GDP/GNP figures are questionable, because it seems to me that they are not calculated on the same basis (apples and oranges in Internet speak!).

      On the topic of the Bomber Offensive, I agree that it became a bit of an end in itself. I feel a smaller and more efficient force could have done the same damage to the German economy at lower cost (ie fewer Lancasters and more Mosquitoes - including Mosquito intruders) but possibly this is with the benefit of hindsight.

    3. On problems of production versus efficiency, I have long noted that the US production figures include tens of thousands of obsolete aircraft, many of which appear to have never been uncrated, or even to have left the warehouses.

      This could be an issue similar to the British responding to the invasion threat by putting off the introduction of the 6pdr for over a year to concentrate on more 2pdr's. (Or even worse, abandoning new designs like the Westland Whirlwind - Britain's version of the P38 Lightning - which had similar initial problems and slow development needs which it unfortunately did not get).

      The US initial rush to production not only meant producing thousands of items that were effectively not worth shipping overseas when better stuff was available for the limited shipping space available by the time they were ready, but also a tendency to keep producing out of date equipment when it clearly needed replacing by something better earlier. The Sherman tank for instance.

      Britain reduced its tank development because Sherman's were so easily available, and regretted it. The Centurion and Pershing should have been ready to be used post D-Day, not Cromwell's and Shermans (even compromise versions with 17pdr's squeezed in).

      But note that he USSR was apparently better at upgrading its production lines as it went than either the British or Americans.

  2. I've read BWM too - good corrective to the declinist school.

    I think folks tend to seize on certain aspects of British war economy/production/strategy and (usually wrongly) equate them with weakness.

    - lend lease did not mean Britain was completely bankrupt and would have gone under w/o it, it meant that Britain had a dollar shortage and this was a way to keep dollar denominated goods flowing

    - sterling balances as you say were basically running a tab, mostly for the Indian Army, which would've been cheap at twice the price

    - lack of "balanced" production did not mean that Britain could not have built x instead of y - this was result of pooling resources and allocating resources. Made all the sense in the world for UK cruiser tank production to taper and adopt the Sherman; to let USA build most bigger landing craft; UK certainly could have built a balanced force across all areas if it had to, but it didn't, so it could specialize, a "comparative advantage" approach to pooled production.

    The one area where there is an argument for "weakness" I think is in terms of manpower in NW Europe post D-Day. At the decisive campaign, the British 2nd Army started contracting almost immediately, as replacements were so lacking that brigades had to be broken up to bring others up to strength. Here's where the 500 million Empire didn't help much - there were no Indian or African or ANZAC troops in NW Europe to help keep up with the growing American army, and as Churchill said, the growing disparity between US and Commonwealth boots on the ground gave him less and less of a say with FDR & Stalin. Here's a case where the relatively small imperial base, worn out after 5+ years of war, did display "weakness", but but perhaps only relative to its huge continental power allies.

    To go a bit further, this is why I'd worry about a scenario where the UK and USSR win the war sans America, as you've discussed previously. I'd be afraid that this would mean the Red Army liberating all of Europe (perhaps save France and Italy) and thus a far bleaker post war. I'm just afraid the British Army on its own could not have done enough in W Europe to see a result where Western Europe plus W Germany are guaranteed in the western orbit as historical - I see a race for territory that the Red Army dominates.

    1. Dear DB23

      good points. A couple of comments (some just stirring the pot).

      Recent research has made clear that the British army had 115,000 trained infantry replacements available in the UK at the point when they were reducing units in Europe. Not using them was clearly a combination military/political decision. There are various considerations that might have played a part...

      1. The (not impossible) hope that Germany was going to collapse before Christmas.
      2. Conserving manpower for a war that was expected to go another 2 years in Asia.
      3. Letting other people (Americans and French for instance) take some of the load/casualties for a change.
      4. Planning to move Britain's effort back from the footslogger focus that had been forced on them in 1940-43 to the 'produce and let others fight' model that had been used more historically.
      5. British Labour working towards starting postwar reconstruction before war had finished.
      6. All of the above.

      On the point of the Empire not providing troops, the British were responsible for moving 80-100,000 American troops per month across the Atlantic in 1944-5, and about the same British troops to India or the Middle East and French troops from North Africa to Italy or France. The fact that they were not moving British Indian or African troops to Europe does not imply that such troops could not be available. More that there was no point raising more troops if you can't ship them to where they are needed. (See the decision to stop expanding the Indian army because there were more troops than could be used.)

      Could American manpower have been replaced with French, Italian, African, Indian manpower? Perhaps. This goes back to whether the US too might have been more useful as an arsenal of democracy than providing footsloggers. (See point 4 above.)

      This last also raises the issue of postwar settlement. As a cynical exercise I will suggest that Churchill's deals with Stalin over Eastern European 'zones of influence' would have held better without Roosevelt's interference. (As would Allied intervention in Greece, the Balkans, the Adriatic, Austria, Czechoslovakia... in fact the same might be said about postwar boundaries without Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower stuffing them up?)

      Could American munitions equipping French/Italian/Indian/African troops have provided adequate manpower to invade France? Probably. Would the Germans have been more willing to surrender to the Allies while concentrating on holding the Soviets back if some idiot (Roosevelt) wasn't talking about 'unconditional surrender'? Definitely. Would the eventual boundaries have possibly been more favourable to the west than less? Well that's a fun question isn't it?

    2. Thanks for the reply. I was aware of the shipping issues but not of the fact there were half a dozen replacement divisions sitting in England. There were so many "scraping the barrel" comments from WSC, Monty, Brooke at the time ... as you say perhaps there was some "throttling back" going on - after all there were hopes the war would be over by xmas 44 and there were real problems of the economic transition to peacetime to consider.

      The post war boundaries are interesting. I always thought Churchill believed the Yalta boundaries et al would be a good deal given his assumption that the Red Army would likely push much farther west than it actually did. As it turned out the Western Allies could've had a good deal more of Germany if those deals had not been made and it had just been a race for land grab - Western armies really sprinted west late war. My impression was that Churchill wanted these early deals to lock in certain goals given the apparent roll the Red Army was on, whereas FDR would've been happy to let things play out - he had a habit of not wanting to make up his mind on most issues until the last possible moment.

    3. The 115,000 replacements were just those in training schools. They do not include the formed divisions that had been allocated for transfer to the Far East from either Britain or the Middle East that might have been used in europe instead.

      Nonetheless I believe that the British hierarchy were rightly worried that too many too valuable men were still being expended as infantry at a time when the Americans, French, Indians etc had millions of spare underemployed unskilled labour still sitting around waiting shipping.

      Quite seriously Britain had to choose between men in factories or in trenches, whereas there were many millions of men available elsewhere to sit in trenches. 'Scraping the bottom of the barrel' is more about not wanting to drain more resources from industry than not having any men left. (By contrast, Russia was at the point of mass conscripting women for combat roles to keep enough skilled male workers around to make her factories run.)

      On your second point, Churchill had to keep rethinking what could be arranged due to Roosevelt undermining the previous arrangements (see the 'Percentages' deal Churchill and Stalin initialed over the Balkans early in the war which Roosevelt threw out; the British plans for more intervention in the Balkans which Roosevelt blocked - except for Greece fortunately for them; the early 'arrangements' over post war Poland which Roosevelt undermined; etc.)

      I do not definitely know if the Russians would have been any easier to deal with if Stalin had dealt just with Churchill rather than being able to play Roosevelt off against Churchill, but I do know that Stalin revelled in the game that resulted.

      I also suspect that Germany would have surrendered a lot earlier, while the various armies were a lot further from German heartlands, and attempted a much better deal that gave more to the west and less to the east, if not for the words 'unconditional surrender'. (Have a look at how many German generals wanted to move the whole army east and let the Allies advance as fast as possible in the West.)

      I have no idea how different the world would have looked with Allied troops entering Yugoslavia and invading Trieste or moving into Austria and Czechoslovakia while the Russians were still in Poland, but I do note that the speed of Soviet advance was very very reliant on Allied supplies (particularly American trucks supplied by British ships).

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