The British Army 1939-45

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It was widely believed that a superiority in numbers of at least three to one was required for a successful offensive. Defensive concepts underlay the construction of the Maginot Line between France and Germany and of its lesser counterpart, the Siegfried Line , in the interwar years. Yet by both of the requirements for the supremacy of the offensive were at hand: tanks and planes.

The battles of Cambrai and Amiens had proved that when tanks were used in masses, with surprise, and on firm and open terrain, it was possible to break through any trench system. The Germans learned this crucial, though subtle, lesson from World War I. The Allies on the other hand felt that their victory confirmed their methods, weapons, and leadership, and in the interwar period the French and British armies were slow to introduce new weapons, methods, and doctrines. Consequently, in the British Army did not have a single armoured division, and the French tanks were distributed in small packets throughout the infantry divisions.

The Germans, by contrast, began to develop large tank formations on an effective basis after their rearmament program began in In the air the technology of war had also changed radically between and Military aircraft had increased in size, speed, and range, and for operations at sea, aircraft carriers were developed that were capable of accompanying the fastest surface ships.

Among the new types of planes developed was the dive bomber , a plane designed for accurate low-altitude bombing of enemy strong points as part of the tank-plane-infantry combination. Fast low-wing monoplane fighters were developed in all countries; these aircraft were essentially flying platforms for eight to 12 machine guns installed in the wings. Light and medium bombers were also developed that could be used for the strategic bombardment of cities and military strongpoints. The threat of bomber attacks on both military and civilian targets led directly to the development of radar in England.

Radar made it possible to determine the location, the distance, and the height and speed of a distant aircraft no matter what the weather was.

The British Army –45 (2): Middle East & Mediterranean by Martin Brayley

By December there were five radar stations established on the coast of England, and 15 additional stations were begun. So, when war came in September , Great Britain had a warning chain of radar stations that could tell when hostile planes were approaching. World War II. Article Media. Each Anti-aircraft division was also responsible for searchlight and barrage balloon units within its assigned area.

The first raiding forces formed during the war were the ten Independent Companies , which were raised from volunteers from Second-Line Territorial Army divisions. The remaining personnel carried out Operation Collar against German-occupied France, before being merged into the Commandos. Later in , the British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill 's call for "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.

They eventually formed 30 battalion-sized commando units including 8 Royal Marines units , some of which were organised within four brigades; 1st , 2nd , 3rd , and 4th Commando brigades. The Parachute battalions formed the core of the 1st and 6th airborne divisions and the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. Units that operated as smaller bodies included the Long Range Desert Group , which was formed in North Africa to report on movements and activities behind the German and Italian lines. A little known force that never saw combat were the Auxiliary Units , a specially trained and secret organisation that, in the event of an invasion, would provide resistance behind the lines.

Reports were to be collected from dead letter drops and relayed by radio operators of the Royal Signals from secret locations. Formed in September , enlistment was open to woman aged 18 upwards who could enlist for general or local service Local service they served in their own local area, General service they could be sent where they were needed and could be anywhere in the country. Civilians aged between 17—65, who were not in military service, were asked to enlist in the LDV. The British tank force consisted of the slow and heavily armed infantry tank , together with the faster and lighter cruiser tank.

The cruiser tanks were intended to operate independently of the slow-moving infantry and their heavier infantry tanks. They would then deploy independent tank brigades equipped with the infantry tanks to operate with the infantry. These tanks, with a 75mm gun, and the ability to fire high explosive and anti-tank rounds, were better than any other tank then in British service.

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The British divisional anti-tank weapon was the Ordnance QF 2-pounder , which had three times the range of the German 3. Its small size and light weight provided excellent mobility and at the same time it was also capable of defeating most German tanks. But only with the development of the pounder anti-tank gun in , did the artillery have the ability to knock out the heavily armoured Tiger and Panther tanks at a maximum range of 1 mile 1.

Cap Badges of the British Army 1939-1945

In the evacuation from France, the artillery left behind 1, field and anti-tank guns. Much of what was lost was obsolete and the re-equipment programme produced the mass of artillery that proved decisive from onwards. The Thompson submachine gun was effective, but heavy, and initially hard to obtain because of its American patent.

The British medical services had better staffing, equipment and medicines; it enabled the British Army to keep a higher proportion of troops in the field than its opponents. In April a standardised system of markings for British vehicles was introduced to take account of the mass mechanisation of the army. The Military Training Pamphlet MTP contained most of the theory by which the army operated, the series covering most of the trades and specialisms of the army.

In , the intended audience was stipulated with codes under which higher operations were distributed to unit commanders and above and manuals on minor tactics to corporals and above, lower ranks not being included. Pre-war manuals were produced by committees and published by the Army Council but this was a slow, bureaucratic process.

British Army Uniforms and Insignia, 1939 45

In late writing was transferred to officers chosen by the Directorate of Military Training, under the CIGS, rather than the Army Council but this was still slow; a manual for the infantry division in defence published in March had taken 15 months to write. In the first year of the war ATM appeared monthly, then intermittently with 29 issues being published by the end of the war. ATM 33 was published on 2 July , only eleven days after the report contained the findings of the Bartholomew Committee on the lessons of the debacle in France was written.

ATI 2 covered occasions when infantry tank units had to be used as substitutes for armoured brigades as well as support infantry advances. The pamphlet endorsed a more ambitious form of infantry support but this proved disastrous in practice and in May a revised version was published. The swift increase in the number of British tank formations created great demand for information and in , MTP 41 replaced ATI 3 but technological and tactical change rapidly made written instructions obsolete, which rebounded on forces being trained in Britain.

Later issues took longer and covered longer periods, NTW 6 covered Cyrenaica from November to January and was published in July NTWs became the official line on lessons learned and were issues to the level of the company and its equivalents; by mid, the series had reached NTW The CRO series contained findings before they had been endorsed by the War Office to give unit commanders and training school Commandants quick access to information with the proviso that if the details contradicted accepted theory, this would usually take precedence.

CROs were not circulated below brigade headquarters until April , when battalion HQs were included and after May appeared weekly until June Reports after 6 June show changes in theory and show the flaws in Home Forces and 21st Army Group training. There is little evidence in the documents of a frank acknowledgement of the failings of British tanks in North Africa and material criticising equipment is absent perhaps because the War Office and higher commands thought that admitting inadequacies would affect morale.

A report by Lieutenant-Colonel A. The effect of the censorship was limited because word of mouth was unstoppable; when the th RAC , part of the 34th Tank Brigade reached Normandy, visitors from the 11th Armoured Division said that even their Churchills were outclassed by German tanks and CROs resumed in late July. The First Army was formed to command the British and American forces that were part of Operation Torch , the assault landings in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November It controlled British and Commonwealth land forces stationed in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Twelfth Army was originally formed for Operation Husky , codename for the Allied invasion of Sicily but was never used. The Fourteenth Army was a multinational force comprising units from Commonwealth countries, many of its units were from the Indian Army as well as British units and there were also significant contributions from 81st , 82nd and 11th African Divisions.

It was often referred to as the "Forgotten Army" because its operations in the Burma Campaign were overlooked by the contemporary press, and remained more obscure than those of the corresponding formations in Europe for long after the war. The Fourteenth Army was the largest Commonwealth Army during the war, with nearly a million men by late However, the number of British infantry battalions serving in the theatre was the equivalent of eight infantry divisions.


It had control of two armies: Eighth Army under command of Montgomery and U. After Sicily, and in preparation for the allied invasion of Italy, the Seventh Army headquarters were replaced by those of the U. Fifth Army , under Mark Clark. The 18th Army Group was activated in early , when the Eighth Army advancing from the east and First Army from the west came close enough to require coordinated command during the Tunisia Campaign. It was commanded by General Sir Harold Alexander. The 21st Army Group initially controlled all ground forces in Operation Overlord.

However the Lines of Communications units were predominantly British. First Army for Overlord, [] and the U.

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  8. Ninth Army ; as a result of the disruption to the chain of command during the Battle of the Bulge and as reinforcement for the drive to the Rhine, Operations Veritable and Grenade. Ninth Army again and the U. After the German surrender, 21st Army Group was converted into the headquarters for the British zone of occupation in Germany.

    The BEF that was sent to France after the declaration of war consisted, initially, of , men in two army corps each of two infantry divisions.


    Due to the new arrivals some exchanging of Regular and Territorial units was considered necessary and took place, in an attempt to strengthen the Territorial divisions. In April, more reinforcements arrived of two further Territorial divisions. A further three Territorial divisions, all 2nd Line and poorly trained and without their supporting artillery, engineer and signals units, arrived later in the same month. They were the 12th Eastern , 23rd Northumbrian and 46th Infantry Divisions and had been sent to France on labour duties.

    In May, elements of the 1st Armoured Division also arrived.

    The occupation of Norway led to a possible German presence in Iceland, this along with the island's strategic importance, alarmed the British. The British were defeated after a brief campaign when faced with the Italian force of 23 colonial battalions in five brigades. Operation Compass was a success and the Western Desert Force advanced across Libya capturing Cyrenaica , , Italian soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces and more than 1, aircraft with very few casualties of their own.

    Its objectives were to recapture the Halfaya Pass, drive the enemy from the Sollum and Capuzzo areas, and deplete Rommel's forces.

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    A secondary objective was to advance towards Tobruk, although only as far as supplies would allow, and without risking the force committed to the operation. However the operation was inconclusive and only succeeded in retaking the Halfaya Pass. Battleaxe was also a failure, and with the British forces defeated, Churchill wanted a change in command, so Wavell exchanged places with General Claude Auchinleck, as Commander-in-Chief, India.

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