British Army

In 1939 Britain had a small professional army. This was backed up by a poorly trained and ill-equipped Territorial Army. On the outbreak of the Second World War, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, agreed to send a British Expeditionary Army to France. Under the command of General John Gort, the force included four regular infantry divisions and 50 light tanks.

The British government introduced conscription and by May 1940, British Army strength was brought up to 50 divisions. Of these, 13 divisions were in France fighting against the German Western Offensive. After the evacuations from Dunkirk were complete, the British Army had 1,650,000 men.

After the fall of France in June, 1940, the British Army was mainly used to protect the British Empire. This included sending troops to Egypt, Singapore and Burma. A small force was also sent to Greece in March 1941 but it was soon forced to retreat. British Army units also took part in the Allied invasions of Sicily, Italy and France.

The main rifle used by the infantry was the Lee Enfield 303. A trained soldier using this rifle was able to put five shots into a four-inch circle at 200 yards. When fitted with telescopes a good sniper could hit his target at a distance of 1000 yards.

In the early stages of the Second World War the British Army purchased the Tommy Gun from the United States. These were expensive and in 1940 they switched to the Sten Gun made by the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield.

There were several models but the Mark 2 was the most popular. The gun had a massive bolt inside a tubular casing with the barrel fixed to the front and the magazine feeding from the left side where it could be supported on the firer's forearm.

During the Second World War the Royal Small Arms Factory supplied 4 million of these guns to the British Army. It was not popular with the soldiers because its habit of jamming when being used in battle. However, they were cheap to buy and the British government distributed them to resistance groups throughout occupied Europe. The gun could be easily and rapidly dismantled into its component parts for concealment, which was a distinct advantage for underground fighters.

Britain's early heavy machine gun was the extremely reliable water-cooled Vickers 303. It was a recoil-operated machine gun, water cooled and belt fed. It weighed 40lb without its tripod and fired the standard .303 British cartridge at about 450rpm.

The British Army only had 100 tanks left after Dunkirk and Vauxhall Motors were under instructions to produce the tanks as quickly as possible. As a result, the early Churchill tank suffered considerable mechanical problems. It performed badly at the Dieppe Raid but was more successful in North Africa. The armament was also inadequate and in March 1942 it was produced with a 6-pounder gun. The following year this was replaced with a 75mm gun.

The first Valentine tanks were delivered in May 1940 and the following year they were sent to take part in the Desert War. During the war there were eleven versions of the tank. For example, the tank's armament changed from a 6-pounder in 1938 to 75mm in 1944. However, the size of the turret remained a problem and the crew constantly complained about a lack of room.

By June 1945 the British Army had grown to 2,920,000 men. During the Second World War 144,079 British soldiers were killed, 239,575 were wounded and 152,079 were taken prisoner.

Primary Sources

(1) Guenther Blumentritt was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about the quality of Allied troops for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

The Americans attacked with zest, and had a keen sense of mobile action, but when they came under heavy artillery fire they usually fell back-even after they had made a successful penetration. By contrast, once the British had got their teeth in, and had been in a position for twenty-four hours, it proved almost impossible to shift them. To counter-attack the British always cost us very heavy losses. I had many opportunities to observe this interesting difference in the autumn of 1944, when the right half of my corps faced the British, and the left half the American.

(2) Harold Alexander, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

Twenty-six nations contributed contingents to my command in Italy. I feel, therefore, it will be agreed that I speak from first-hand experience of the varying fighting qualities of troops in battle when I affirm that there are no better soldiers than those of the British race, provided they have a cause worth fighting for - and dying for, if necessary.

They object to being pushed around - they are intelligent enough to want to know what it is all about and they will become unhappy and disgruntled if they feel that unfairness exists. Yet, if their leaders are worthy of them, they will follow them anywhere. They are very patient and tough in defence. Yet though the British will go into the attack with great bravery and tenacity, as a whole they are not quick to exploit a success or to react to a sudden emergency.

British military leaders are reluctant to accept heavy losses unless the scales of victory are weighted in their favour. This attitude of mind no doubt results from our experiences in the first world war, when our enormous casualties in such battles as the Somme and Passchendaele gave us nothing more than a few square miles of French territory, and sometimes achieved an advance of no more than a few yards.