The British Army

How was the Army of 1945 different from that immediately prior to the Second World War ?

The British army of 1945 had evolved in its role, its size and in its strategy. Its stance had changed also, with its adaption to modern and continental war. The army had become larger in order to deal with modern wars, it had improved its effectiveness at both operational and strategic levels and it was far better equipped to deal with a modern war. In short the British army had learned the hard way, immediately prior to and in the early stages of the war, that it was not an army capable of fighting a m odern war against a modern army on a grand scale. It evolved throughout the war to meet this new task. The question is then, how did the British army evolve. The background must be set first, with the ten year rule and the economic crisis that Britain faced through the 1930`s. In Firepower by Bidwell and Graham, the British army in the early 1930`s is ref erred to as "an Army whose outlook was as obsolete as its equipment"1. With the economic difficulties that Britain faced, the Army was an obvious target for cuts. Although innovation was good throughout the army, its funding was not and this led to a redu ction in both training exercises and the purchase of new equipment. The British Army had been relegated to third position by the early 1930`s with Air power being seen as the key to winning the next war and the Navy still being seen as securing the Island s security and prestige. So, the Army that was priority after 1918 was now seen as third on the list of priorities and this had a great effect upon its funding. It was also the case that Britain was facing up to a policing role throughout its Empire and not that of fighting a major European war against a very large and modernised army. The 10 year rule had meant that when it was predicted that there was not going to be a major war within 10 years, the Army received even less funds than before, but this w as abrogated in 1933 although the effect this had was minimal as economic depression meant that funds were simply not available.

Immediately prior to the Second World War Britain was facing the harsh reality of another major European war with which it was completely unprepared. Equipment was poor in terms of quality and quantity and the lack of funds that it had received was evide nt throughout the ranks. Innovation had been good in the inter-war period, but this had not been transformed into new and fully distributed weaponry in the Army. The Airforce had received money from the Government, but even they were not immune to the eco nomic effect of the depression when its funding was withdrawn. During the 1930`s the Army became more mobile with the introduction of infantry support tanks and armoured veichles, but this was not widespread enough to make it capable of fighting and winni ng a modern war and immediately prior to the war, the Army had not sustained the momentum of innovation and this was to be seen in the early phases of the war. The entire army was designed for what was seen as the most important role; that of policing the empire. It was not ready for a modern war and the early stages of the war highlighted this harsh reality from Greece, France, North Africa to Singapore the British Army showed its inability to deal with a large mobilised modern Army. such as Germany. It was on the shores of Dunkirk and in the desert of North Africa in 1940 and 1941 that the British were forced to learn the hard way. There were weaknesses throughout the Army; some the fault of political decisions in the previous two decades, some because of a a lack of appreciation of how a modern war would be fought. It is fair to say that the British losses in the early part of the Second World War were as attributable to the very well executed German blitzkrieg strategy as they were to British weaknes ses, but for the purposes of this essay I shall look at the mistakes that were due to British factors. Again Bidwell and Graham say that "All the deficiencies of equipment which were to bedevil Army operations in the early part of the war must be seen in the light of this necessary deflection of military production to the air defence of Great Britain"2. T hey refer to the great pre-war worry that it was air power that was to be the real decisive arm of a nation and due to this thought the Airforce became more important than the Army. This was not the sole reason for British failures however, it is also tru e to say that there was a lack of solidarity in Britain's armed forces. This could have been partly due to the fact that the Navy, the Airforce and the Army were all competing for funding at a difficult economic time for Britain, but I feel it was more du e to the Army's class structure and outlook. In The Desert War, by Adrian Gilbert it refers to the problems that existed between different sections of the army; how the tank crews were seen as inferior to the infantry and in The Memoirs Of Field Marshall Montgomery, Montgomery states that when he arrived at North Africa, the Airforce and Army HQ's were several miles apart and that there was little co-ordination between the two. So, aswell as the financial and technical weaknesses in the British Army, ther e was a lack of co-ordination between the different armed forces, which was afterall the very thing that the Germans possessed and used so effectively within the Blitzkrieg strategy. The Army of 1939 was an army that had outdated equipment such as the 2 pounder anti-tank gun and the various infantry support tanks like the Matilda, Grant and Valentine tanks which were all soon to be proved inferior in France and North Africa. This was due to the lack of funding the Army received during the 1930`s and the refore the lack of innovation during the late 1930`s were a 2 pounder anti-tank gun was no longer adequate against the latest tanks and the various light tanks that the Army possessed ceased to be at the leading edge of technological advancements. It can be seen therefore that the fact that Britain failed to continue upgrading its Army was to prove very costly indeed.

During the depression the Army had to make cuts and history shows that when an army is forced to make cuts it prefers not cut the front line forces, i.e. the actual soldiers or machinery, but to cut the supporting units and stock. Therefore the Army of 1 939 was lacking in training and under equipped. At this point I think it is necessary to point out that the Army of 1939 was not weak as a result of the Army's unwillingness to take on-board new technologies and neither was it low in morale as Ian Beckett points out in his book The Amateur Military Tradition. Infact in Peter Youngs The British Army 1642-1970 he refers to a report by the German IV Corps that stated "Certainly the Territorial divisions are inferior to the Regular troops in training, but whe re morale is concerned they are their equal."3 To paint a picture then of the British Army immediately prior to the Second World War, it was clearly not ready for a modern war as its training, tactics, equipment and outlook were all either obsolete or mis -directed towards the empire. We have seen what the Army resembled in 1939 and why it needed to change; now is the time to look at how it changed throughout the Second World War. Much of the change has been accredited to Montgomery and Slim and it is fair to say that although their i deas were not new, they were atleast necessary in order for the British Army to defeat Rommel in North Africa and for Slim to achieve victory in Burma. With all the failures in the early phase of the war, it was obvious that the British Army needed to cha nge its ways fast if it was to survive the Axis onslaught. As North Africa was the only place where Britain could fight the Axis powers on land, it was to become the learning ground then the experimental ground and then again the learning ground. By this I am referring to the fact that harsh lessons were learned from 1940 to 1942 in the Deserts of Northern Africa and then with the arrival of Bernard Montgomery the experimental phase began as he fought a completely different type of war than his predecesso rs. Then it became the learning ground again as it was clear that Montgomery`s doctrine of war was not only possible, but very effective too and it was on this basis that Montgomery fought the Normandy campaign. Key changes that Montgomery introduced to t he Eighth army were the use of combined arms, meaning the close co-operation between all parts of the armed forces, extensive training and a strategic aswell as operational outlook on the campaign. Montgomery waited for the appropriate equipment to arrive (300 Sherman tanks and 100 self propelled guns in late 1942) and the required level of training to be reached before launching his own offensive.

Montgomery changed the strategic thought of an often short-sighted Army whilst improving tactics to a previously dis-jointed Army and it was the basis of these changes that made the 1945 British Army so different to that of 1939. The Army also grew in si ze considerably with conscription and the result was that by 1945 the Army numbered more than 2.9 million soldiers, which was far more than the number in 1939. As the war went on and Britain and America's industrial strength turned towards war production the British Army became better equipped and through experience the obsolete weapons were removed and new improved ones put in their place. The 2 pounder anti-tank gun was replaced with the 6 pounder and the British tanks were added to by the far more sup erior U.S Sherman tanks which America was producing in their thousands. The British Army was also able to operate at an operational level of warfare by 1945 and this was an important development as it meant that when fighting in Normandy with such a vast array of armed forces the British were able to act in accordance with what Montgomery calls 'A Master Plan', whilst still possessing the tactical ability to manoeuvre. In short the British Army of 1945 had adapted to modern war through technological, stra tegic, and tactical change. The Army's outlook was more suited to modern war, its size and content was equally suited and these combined to enable the British Army to fight a modern army on a large scale and defeat it. By 1942 from Dunkirk, Gazala and Gre ece it was obvious that the British Army had to change in order to exist as a capable fighting force and when this was achieved the results were for all to see at El Alamein and Normandy.

Paul John.


Peter Young, The British Army 1642-1970, 1967.

Ian Beckett, The Amateur Military Tradition 1558-1945, 1991

Bidwell & Graham, Fire-Power - British Army weapons and theories of war 1904-1945, 1982.

Bernard Montgomery, The Memoirs Of Field-Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G, 1958

Beckett & Chandler, The Oxford History Of The British Army, 1996.

1. Bidwell and Graham, Firepower, 1982. (page 185). 2. Bidwell and Graham, Firepower, 1982. (page 187). 3. Peter Young, The British Army 1642-1970, 1967. (page 261)

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