British Army during the Second World War
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The British Army during the Second World War was, in 1939, a volunteer army, that introduced limited conscription in early 1939, and full conscription shortly after the declaration of war with Germany. During the early years of the Second World War, the British Army suffered defeat in almost every theatre of war in which it was deployed, due mainly to neglect in the years before the war. With mass conscription, the expansion of the British Army was reflected in the formation of larger armies and army groups. From 1943, the larger and better equipped British Army never suffered a strategic defeat (although there were failures, most notably the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944).
The pre-war army was trained and equipped to be a small, mechanised, professional army. Its main function was to garrison the British Empire. It became evident during the war that its initial structure and manpower was woefully unprepared and ill-equipped for a war with multiple enemies on multiple fronts. The British Army, an all volunteer force until 1939, was small in comparison to its enemies at the start of the war in 1939, as it was in the First World War. By the end of the Second World War, however, over 3.5 million men had served in the British Army.
The army was called on to fight around the world, starting with campaigns in Europe in 1940. After the Dunkirk evacuation, the army fought on in North Africa, the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and in the Far East. After a series of setbacks, retreats and evacuations, the British Army eventually, with its Allies, gained the upper hand. This started with victory in North Africa and then Italy was forced to surrender after the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy itself. In the last year of the war, the army returned to France, driving the German Army back into Germany, while in the Far East the Japanese were driven back from the Indian border into eastern Burma. Both the Germans and Japanese were defeated by 1945 and surrendered within months of each other.
With the expansion of the British Army to fight a world war, new armies were formed, and eventually army groups were created to control even larger formations. In command of these new armies, eight men would be promoted to the rank of Field Marshal. The army commanders not only had to manage the new armies, but also a new type of soldier in formations like the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, Commandos and the Parachute Regiment.
Prior to the war, the British Army was a small professional army, designed to be able to win quick victories by utilising superior mobility and using technology in place of manpower. Nevertheless, its effectiveness was hampered by the doctrine of casualty avoidance, a measure adopted due to the high losses sustained in the First World War (1914–1918). The army knew that British society, and the soldiers themselves, would never again allow them to recklessly throw away lives. There was also a conservative tendency to consolidate gains made on the battlefield instead of aggressively exploiting successes. The structure of the British Army had been organized in such a way that it sacrificed firepower for mobility and removed from its commanders the fire support weapons that were needed to advance over the battlefield.
The British Army had analysed the lessons of the First World War and adopted them into inter-war doctrine, at the same time trying to predict how advances in weapons and technology might affect any future war. Developments were constrained by the Treasury. In 1919, the Ten Year Rule was introduced, which stipulated that the British Armed Forces should draft their estimates "on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years". In 1928, Winston Churchill, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer (later destined to become Prime Minister), successfully urged the British government to make the rule self-perpetuating and hence it was in force unless specifically countermanded.
In the 1920s, and much of the 1930s, the General Staff tried to establish a small mechanized professional army, using the Experimental Mechanized Force as a prototype. However, with the lack of any identified threat, the Army's main function was to garrison the British Empire. During this time, the army suffered from a lack of funding. The Royal Navy, being the first line of defence, received the major proportion of the defence budget. Second priority was the creation of a bomber force for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to retaliate against the expected attacks on British cities. The development of radar in 1935, which had the ability to track enemy aircraft, resulted in additional funding being provided for the RAF to build a fighter aircraft force. The army's shortage of funds, and no requirement for large armoured forces to police the Empire, was reflected in the fact that no large scale armoured formations were formed until 1938. At the outbreak of the Second World War, only two armoured divisions (the 1st and 7th) had been formed, in comparison to the seven armoured divisions of the German Army.
In September 1939, the British Army had a total of 892,697 officers and men in both the full-time regular army and part-time Territorial Army (TA). The regular army could muster 224,000 men, who were supported by a reserve of 173,700 men. Of the regular army reservists, only 3,700 men were fully trained and the remainder had been in civilian life for up to 13 years. In April 1939, an additional 34,500 men had been conscripted into the regular army and had only completed their basic training on the eve of war. The regular army was built around 30 cavalry or armoured regiments and 140 infantry battalions. The Territorial Army numbered 438,100, with a reserve of around 20,750 men. This force comprised 29 yeomanry regiments (eight of which were still to be fully mechanized), 12 tank and 232 infantry battalions.
Conscription was introduced in early 1939 to meet the threat of Nazi Germany, with the Military Training Act 1939. The Act required all men aged 20 and 21 to take six months' military training. On the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 was rushed through Parliament. This extended the liability to military service to all fit men between 20–23. The age group was increased as the war continued, ultimately applying to all fit men between the ages of 18–41.
By the end of 1939, the British Army's strength had risen to 1.1 million men, by June 1940 it stood at 1.65 million men, and had further increased to 2.2 million men by the following June. The size of the British Army peaked in June 1945, at just under 3 million men. By the end of the Second World War and the final demobilisations in 1946, over 3.5 million men had served in the British Army.
In 1944, the United Kingdom was facing severe manpower shortages. By May 1944, it was estimated that the British Army's strength in December 1944 would be 100,000 less than it was at the end of 1943. Although casualties in the Normandy Campaign, where the British Army's main effort of 1944 was, were actually lower than anticipated, losses from all causes were still higher than could be replaced. Two infantry divisions and a brigade (59th and 50th divisions and 70th Brigade) were disbanded to provide replacements for other British divisions in the 21st Army Group and all men being called up to the Army were trained as infantrymen. Furthermore, 35,000 men from the RAF Regiment and the Royal Artillery were transferred to the infantry and were retrained as rifle infantrymen, where the majority of combat casualties fell. In addition, in the Eighth Army fighting in the Italian Campaign of the Mediterranean theatre several units, mainly infantry, were also disbanded to provide replacements, including the 1st Armoured Division and several other smaller units, such as the 168th Brigade, had to be reduced to cadre, and several other units had to be amalgamated, such as happened with the 2nd and 6th battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which merged in August 1944. Furthermore, most infantry battalions in Italy had to be reduced from four to three rifle companies.
The pre-war army had allowed recruits to be assigned to the corps of their wishes. This led to men being allocated to the wrong or unsuitable corps. The Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha attempted to address these problems, and the wider problems of the British Army. The process of allocating men would remain ad hoc at the start of the war. The army would be without the quotas of men required from skilled professions and trades, which modern warfare demanded. With the British Army being the least popular service compared to the Royal Navy and RAF, a higher proportion of army recruits were said to be dull and backwards.
The following memorandum to the Executive Committee of the Army Council highlighted the growing concern.
"The British Army is wasting manpower in this war almost as badly as it did in the last war. A man is posted to a Corps almost entirely on the demand of the moment and without any effort at personal selection by proper tests."
Only with the creation of the Beveridge committee in 1941, and their subsequent findings in 1942, would the situation of skilled men not being assigned correctly be addressed. The findings led directly to the creation of the General Service Corps, and would remain in place long after the war.
During the war, the British Army raised 43 infantry divisions. Not all of these existed at the same time, and several were formed purely as training or administrative formations. Ten divisions were raised from the regular army, eleven from the first-line territorial army and twelve from the second-line territorial army. Five others were created during the war.
The 1939 infantry division had a theoretical establishment of 13,863 men. By 1944, the strength had risen to 18,347 men. This increase in manpower resulted mainly from the increased establishment of a division's subunits and formations; except for certain specialist supporting services, the overall structure remained substantially the same throughout the war. A 1944 division typically was made up of three infantry brigades; a Medium Machine Gun (MMG) battalion (with 36 Vickers machine guns, in three companies, and one company of 16 4.2-inch mortars); a reconnaissance regiment; a divisional artillery group, which consisted of three motorised field artillery regiments each with twenty-four 25-pounder guns, an anti-tank regiment with forty-eight anti-tank guns and a light anti-aircraft regiment with fifty-four Bofors 40 mm guns; three field companies and one field park company of the Royal Engineers; three transport companies of the Royal Army Service Corps; an ordnance field park company of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps; three field ambulances of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a signals unit of the Royal Corps of Signals; and a provost company of the Royal Military Police. During the war, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was formed to take over the responsibility of recovering and repairing vehicles and other equipment. A division generally had three workshop companies, and a recovery company from the REME.
There were very few variations on this standard establishment – for example, the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division was converted to a Mountain Division, with lighter equipment and transport. Other differences were generally the result of local exigencies. (A "Lower Establishment" existed for divisions stationed in Britain or inactive theatres, which were not intended to take part in active operations.)
With all cavalry and armoured regiments committed to armoured formations in the early part of the war, there were no units left for divisional reconnaissance, so the Reconnaissance Corps was formed in January 1941. Ten infantry battalions were reformed as reconnaissance battalions. The Reconnaissance Corps was merged into the Royal Armoured Corps in 1944.
The Infantry brigade typically had a HQ company and three infantry battalions. Fire support was provided by the allocation of an MMG company, anti tank battery, Royal Engineer company and/or field artillery regiment as required. Brigade Groups, which operated independently, had Royal Engineer, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers units permanently assigned. Brigade groups were also formed on an ad-hoc basis and were given whatever resources was needed to complete an objective. However, it was intended before the war that the division was the lowest formation at which support (particularly artillery fire) could be properly concentrated and coordinated. Lieutenant General Montgomery reimposed and reinforced this principle when he assumed command of the Eighth Army in North Africa in 1942, halting a tendency to split divisions into uncoordinated brigades and "penny packets".
The infantry battalion consisted of the battalion Headquarters (HQ), HQ company (signals and administration platoons), four rifle companies (HQ and three rifle platoons), a support company with a carrier platoon, mortar platoon, anti tank platoon and pioneer platoon. The rifle platoon had a HQ, which included a 2-inch mortar and an anti tank weapon team, and three rifle sections, each containing seven riflemen and a three-man Bren gun team.
At the start of the war, the British Army possessed only two armoured divisions: the Mobile Division, formed in Britain in October 1937, and the Mobile Division (Egypt), formed in the autumn of 1938 following the Munich Crisis, These two divisions were later redesignated the 1st Armoured Division, in April 1939, and 7th Armoured Division, in January 1940, respectively.
During the war, the army raised a further nine armoured divisions, some of which were training formations and saw no action. Three were formed from first-line territorial or Yeomanry units. Six more were raised from various sources. As with the infantry divisions, not all existed at the same time, as several armoured divisions were disbanded or reduced to skeleton establishments during the course of the war, as a result of battle casualties or to provide reinforcements to bring other formations up to full strength.
The structure of British armoured divisions changed several times before and during the war. In 1937, the Mobile Division had two cavalry brigades each with three light tank regiments, a tank brigade with three medium tank regiments, and a "Pivot Group" (later called the "Support Group") containing two motorised infantry battalions and two artillery regiments. The Mobile Division (Egypt) had a light armoured brigade, a cavalry brigade, a heavy armoured group of two regiments and a pivot group.
By 1939, the intention was for an Armoured Division to consist of two armoured brigades, a support group and divisional troops. The armoured brigades would each be composed of three armoured regiments with a mixture of light and medium tanks, with a total complement of 220 tanks, while the support group would be composed of two motorised infantry battalions, two field artillery regiments, one anti–tank regiment and one light anti–aircraft regiment.
In late 1940, following the campaign in France and Belgium in the spring, it was realised that there were insufficient infantry and support units, and mixing light and cruiser tanks in the same brigade had been a mistake. The armoured divisions' organisation was changed so that each armoured brigade now incorporated a motorised infantry battalion, and a third battalion was present within the Support Group.
In the winter of 1940–41, new armoured regiments were formed by converting the remaining mounted cavalry and yeomanry regiments. A year later, 33 infantry battalions were also converted to armoured regiments. By the Second Battle of El Alamein, in late 1942, the British Army had realised that an entire infantry brigade was needed within each division, but until mid 1944, the idea that the armoured and motorised infantry brigades should fight separate albeit coordinated battles persisted. By the Battle of Normandy in 1944, the divisions consisted of an armoured brigade of three armoured regiments and a motorised infantry battalion, and an infantry brigade containing three motorised infantry battalions. The division's support troops included an armoured car regiment, an armoured reconnaissance regiment, two field artillery regiments (one of which was equipped with 24 Sexton self-propelled 25-pounder guns), one anti–tank regiment (with one or more batteries equipped with Archer or Achilles tank destroyers in place of towed anti–tank guns) and one light anti–aircraft regiment, with the usual assortment of engineers, mechanics, signals, transport, medical, and other support services.
The armoured reconnaissance regiment was equipped with medium tanks, bringing the armoured divisions to a strength of 246 medium tanks (roughly 340 tanks in total) and by the end of the Battle of Normandy the divisions started to operate as two brigade groups, each of two combined arms teams, each in turn of one tank regiment and one infantry battalion (The armoured reconnaissance regiment was matched with the armoured brigade's motor battalion to provide the fourth group).
In 1944, the division's armoured regiments comprised 78 tanks. The regimental headquarters was equipped with four medium tanks, an anti–aircraft troop with eight Crusader Anti–Aircraft tanks, and the regiment's reconnaissance troop with eleven Stuart tanks. Each regiment also had three Sabre squadrons; generally comprising four troops each of four tanks, and a squadron headquarters of three tanks. The Sabre Squadrons contained three close support tanks, 12 medium tanks, and four Sherman Fireflys. Additionally, 18 tanks were allocated to the armoured brigade's headquarters and a further ten to the division's headquarters.
The Royal Artillery was a large corps, responsible for the provision of field, medium, heavy, mountain, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units. (Some field regiments, particularly self-propelled regiments in the later part of the war, belonged to the prestigious Royal Horse Artillery, but were organised similarly to those of the RA.)
The main field artillery weapon throughout the war was the 25-pounder, with a range of 13,400 yards (12,300 m) for the Mk II model, Employed in a direct fire role it was also the most effective anti–tank weapon until the 6-Pounder anti–tank gun became available. One shortcoming of using the 25-pounder in this role was it effectiveness above 1,200 yards (1,100 m) was limited and it deprived the army of indirect fire support. Only 78 25-pounders had been delivered when the war began, so old 18-pounders, many of which had been converted to using 25-pounder ammunition as 18/25-pounders, were also employed.
Each field artillery regiment was originally organised as two batteries, each of two troops of six guns. This was changed late in 1940 to three batteries each of eight guns. Perhaps the most important element of a battery was the Forward Observation Officer (FOO), who directed fire. Unlike most armies of the period, in which artillery observers could only request fire support, a British Army FOO (who was supposedly a Captain but could even be a subaltern) could demand it, not merely from his own battery, but from the full regiment, or even the entire field artillery of a division if required. The artillery's organisation became very flexible and effective at rapidly providing and switching fire.
The medium artillery relied on World War I vintage guns until the arrival, in 1941, of the 4.5-inch Medium gun, which had a range of 20,500 yards (18,700 m) for a 55 pounds (25 kg) shell. This was followed in 1942 by the 5.5-inch Medium gun, which had a range of 18,600 yards (17,000 m) for a 80 pounds (36 kg) shell. The heavy artillery was equipped with the 7.2-inch Howitzer, a modified First World War weapon that nevertheless remained effective. During the war, brigade–sized formations of artillery, referred to as Army Group Royal Artillery (AGRA), were formed. These allowed control of medium and heavy artillery to be centralised. Each AGRA was normally allocated to provide support to a corps, but could be assigned as needed by an Army HQ.
Although infantry units each had an anti-tank platoon, divisions also had a Royal Artillery anti-tank regiment. This had four batteries, each of twelve guns. At the start of the war, they were equipped with the 2-pounder. Although this was perhaps the most effective weapon of its type at the time, it soon became obsolete as tanks became heavier with thicker armour. Its replacement, the 6-pounder, nevertheless did not enter service until early 1942. Even before the 6-pounder was introduced, it was felt that even heavier weapons would be needed, so the 17-pounder was designed, first seeing service in the North African Campaign in late 1942.
Each division also had a light anti-aircraft regiment. Initially, batteries were organised in troops of four guns, but combat experience showed that a three-gun troop was as effective, shooting in a triangular formation, so the batteries were reorganised as four troops of three guns. The troops were subsequently increased in size to six guns, so the regiment then had three batteries each with eighteen Bofors 40 mm guns. This equipment and organisation remained unchanged throughout the war.
The Royal Artillery also formed twelve Anti–aircraft divisions, equipped with heavier weapons. These were mainly the 3-inch and 3.7-inch anti–aircraft guns, but also the 4.5-inch and 5.25-inch guns where convenient. These divisions were organised into Anti-Aircraft Command, which was commanded throughout the war by Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Alfred Pile. 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. They were intended for raiding and reconnaissance behind German lines in the Norwegian Campaign, but were disbanded after the campaign was abandoned. The remaining personnel carried out Operation Collar against German-occupied France, before being merged into the Commandos.
Later in 1940, 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." By 1941, the Commandos were carrying out raids on the German occupied Norwegian coast in Operation Claymore and Operation Archery and in 1942, they formed the assault troops for the St Nazaire Raid. 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.
Impressed by the German Fallschirmjäger, Winston Churchill called for the formation of a similar elite corps of troops. The Parachute Regiment was created and by the end of the war it possessed 17 battalions. Their first action was the Bruneval Raid in 1942. The Parachute battalions formed the core of the 1st and 6th airborne divisions and the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. In 1945, they also supplied battalions for the 50th and 77th Indian Parachute brigades.
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. The Special Air Service was formed in 1941 for raiding missions behind the lines, and later the Special Air Service Brigade was formed to support the Normandy landings. Popski's Private Army, formed in August 1942, was also tasked with missions behind the lines to gather intelligence, blow up installations and ambush small patrols. The Special Interrogation Group was a unit formed from anti-Nazi Germans and Palestinian Jews of German origin under British officers, they wore German equipment, spoke German and lived everyday life as members of the Africa Corps. The Special Boat Service was formed from the Folboat Section later the Special Boat Section of No 8 Commando.
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. Auxiliary Units were well equipped and supplied with food for 14 days, which was their expected lifespan. Selected for aptitude and local knowledge, men were mostly recruited from the Home Guard, which also provided a cover for their existence. In addition, the Special Duties Section was recruited to provide an intelligence gathering service, spying on enemy formations and troop movements. Reports were to be collected from dead letter drops and relayed by radio operators of the Royal Signals from secret locations.
Auxiliary Territorial Service
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the women's branch of the British Army during the Second World War. Formed in September 1938, 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). The ATS served in non combat roles as cooks, clerks and storewoman. Large numbers of ATS also served with the artillery divisions as crews for the guns, searchlights and barrage balloons. One notable ATS member was No. 230873 Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, who trained as a driver and mechanic, drove a military truck, and rose to the rank of Junior Commander. She is the last surviving head of state who served in uniform during the Second World War.
The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was formed in May 1940; it was renamed the Home Guard in July 1940. Civilians aged between 17–65, who were not in military service, were asked to enlist in the LDV. The response was 250,000 volunteers attempting to sign up in the first seven days; by July this had increased to 1.5 million volunteers. On 17 May the LDV achieved official legal status when the Privy Council issued the Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Order in Council, and orders were issued from the War Office to regular Army headquarters throughout Britain explaining the status of LDV units; volunteers would be divided into sections, platoons and companies but would not be paid and leaders of units would not hold commissions or have the power to command regular forces. The issue of weapons to LDV and then Home Guard units was solved when emergency orders were placed for First World War vintage Ross Rifles from Canada and Pattern 1914 Enfield and M1917 Enfield rifles from the United States. The Home Guard was stood down on 3 December 1944 and disbanded on 31 December 1945.
Comparison of equipment
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. The British doctrine at the time did not foresee the armoured division having a role in its own right and was assigned the traditional cavalry role. They would then deploy independent tank brigades equipped with the infantry tanks to operate with the infantry. German panzer and light divisions were equipped with the latest Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, which could outgun all British tanks. By 1942, American Grant and Lend-Lease Sherman tanks entered British service. 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. A British development of the Sherman led to the Sherman Firefly, which was the only tank able to defeat German Panther, Tiger I and Tiger II tanks at range, until the Comet tank entered service in late 1944.
The British divisional anti-tank weapon was the Ordnance QF 2-pounder, which had three times the range of the German 3.7 cm PaK 36. After its introduction in May 1942 the more powerful Ordnance QF 6-pounder replaced the QF 2-pounder during the second part of the war. 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 17-pounder anti-tank gun in 1943, did the artillery have the ability to knock out the heavily armoured Tiger and Panther tanks at a maximum range of 1 mile (1.6 km). The other British artillery guns in 1939, were the 6-inch howitzer left over from World War I, and the 25-pounder. In the evacuation from France, the artillery left behind 1,000 field and 600 anti-tank guns. Much of what was lost was obsolete and the re-equipment programme produced the mass of artillery that proved decisive from 1942 onwards. Self propelled artillery guns used were the German Wespe and Hummel against the Allied Bishop, Deacon, Priest and Sexton.
For the infantry the German MP 38/40 submachine gun took the British by surprise, and the army issued an urgent requirement for its own submachine gun. The Thompson submachine gun was effective, but heavy, and initially hard to obtain because of its American patent. The crude but simple to manufacture Sten gun was accepted and between 1941 and 1945, some 3,750,000 were produced. The British Bren light machine gun with a rate of fire of 500 rounds a minute and 30 round magazine, came up against the German MG 42 which had a rate of fire of 1,500 rounds per minute and ammunition belts of 200 rounds. The standard British rifle was the bolt action Lee–Enfield Rifle, No. 4 Mk I that outmatched the standard German rifle of the war, the Karabiner 98k; later German rifles included the Semi-automatic rifles Gewehr 41, Gewehr 43 and the first assault rifle the StG 44.
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 1942. It was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Kenneth Anderson. It eventually consisted of four corps, the V Corps (Charles Allfrey), IX Corps (John Crocker, later Brian Horrocks), U.S. II Corps (Lloyd Fredendall, later George Patton and Omar Bradley) and French XIX Corps (Marie-Lous Koeltz).
The Second Army was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey and served under the 21st Army Group. It was responsible for the Anglo-Canadian assault beach landings in Normandy on D-Day. Two of its formations, I Corps (John Crocker) and XXX Corps (Gerard Bucknall, later Brian Horrocks) took part in the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 at Sword Beach and Gold Beach, during Operation Overlord. VIII Corps (Richard O'Connor, later Evelyn Barker) entered the line during mid-June to add its weight to the assault, followed by XII Corps (Neil Ritchie) and II Canadian Corps On 23 July 1944 I Corps was transferred to the newly activated Canadian First Army, where it would remain until March 1945, followed by the II Canadian Corps at noon on 31 July.
The Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham. Over time the Eighth Army would be commanded by Neil Ritchie, Claude Auchinleck, Bernard Montgomery, Oliver Leese and Richard McCreery. In the early years of the war Eighth Army suffered from poor leadership and repeated reversals of fortune until the Second Battle of El Alamein when it advanced across Libya into Tunisia and joined the First Army in the 18th Army Group. The Eighth Army, under 15th Army Group command, later took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Allied invasion of Italy and the Italian Campaign, where progress was slow and casualties were heavy.
The Ninth Army was formed on 1 November 1941 with the re designation of the Headquarters of the British Troops in Palestine and Transjordan. It controlled British and Commonwealth land forces stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. Its commanders were General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson and Lieutenant-General Sir William George Holmes.
The Tenth Army was formed in Iraq and from the major part of Paiforce after the Anglo-Iraqi War. It was active in 1942 and 1943, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Quinan and consisted of III Corps (Desmond Anderson) and the Indian XXI Corps (Mosley Mayne). Its main task was the maintenance of the lines of communication to the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and the protection of the South Persian and Iraqi oilfields which supplied Britain with all its non American sourced oil.
The Twelfth Army was originally formed for Operation Husky, codename for the Allied invasion of Sicily but was never used. It was reformed in May 1945, to take control of operations in Burma from the Fourteenth Army. The army Headquarters was created by re designating the Headquarters of the Indian XXXIII Corps, under Lieutenant-General Sir Montagu Stopford.
The Fourteenth Army was a multinational force comprising units from Commonwealth countries. It consists mostly British units but had significant contributions from British Indian Empire and British Africa's 81st, 82nd and 11th Divisions. It was formed in 1943, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir William Slim. The Fourteenth Army was the largest Commonwealth Army during the war, with nearly a million men by late 1944. It was composed of four corps: IV Corps (Geoffrey Scoones, later Frank Messervy and Francis Tuker), XV Corps (British India) (Philip Christison), XXXIII Corps (British India) (Philip Christison, later Montagu Stopford) and the XXXIV Corps (British India) (Ouvry Roberts). The only complete British formations were the 2nd and 36th Infantry Divisions. However, the number of British infantry battalions serving in the theatre was the equivalent of eight infantry divisions.
Eleventh Army Group
The 11th Army Group was activated in November 1943 to act as the land forces HQ for the newly formed South East Asia Command. Its commander was General George Giffard, who had formerly been Commander-in-Chief West Africa Command and Commander of Eastern Army (part of India Command). In November 1944, 11th Army Group was redesignated Allied Land Forces South East Asia, under command of Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese.
Fifteenth Army Group
The 15th Army Group was activated in May 1943, after the surrender of all Axis forces in Tunisia. The commander was Field Marshal Harold Alexander and was responsible for mounting the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. It had control of two armies: Eighth Army under command of Montgomery and U.S. Seventh Army under command Lieutenant General George S. Patton. After Sicily, and in preparation for the allied invasion of Italy, the Seventh Army headquarters were replaced by those of the U.S. Fifth Army, under Mark Clark.
Eighteenth Army Group
The 18th Army Group was activated in early 1943, 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.
Twenty First Army Group
The 21st Army Group initially controlled all ground forces in Operation Overlord. The 21st Army Group main components were the British 2nd Army and the First Canadian Army. Also included were Polish units and from Normandy onwards and small Dutch, Belgian, and Czech units. However the Lines of Communications units were predominantly British. Other Armies that came under command of 21st Army Group were the First Allied Airborne Army, the U.S. First Army for Overlord, and the U.S. 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. The U.S. Ninth Army again and the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps were under command for the Rhine river crossings Operations Plunder and Varsity.
After the German surrender, 21st Army Group was converted into the headquarters for the British zone of occupation in Germany. It was renamed the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) on 25 August 1945, and eventually formed the nucleus of the British forces stationed in Germany throughout the Cold War.
The BEF that was sent to France after the declaration of war consisted, initially, of 160,000 men in two army corps each of two infantry divisions. I Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General John Dill, consisted of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the II Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, of the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions. The 5th Infantry Division arrived in France in December 1939, and was assigned to Lieutenant General Brooke's II Corps. The first Territorial Army (TA) formations arrived in January 1940. These were the 48th (South Midland), 50th (Northumbrian) and the 51st (Highland) 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. The 51st Division was sent to the Saar to assist the French Army garrison on the Maginot Line while the rest of the BEF deployed along the French—Belgian border.
In April, more reinforcements arrived of two further Territorial divisions. These were the 42nd (East Lancashire) and 44th (Home Counties) Infantry 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 German Army invaded in the West on 10 May 1940, by that time BEF consisted of 10 divisions, a tank brigade and a detachment of 500 aircraft from the RAF. During the Battle of France the speed of the German advance pushed them back, and after a brief armoured counterattack by the 5th and 50th Divisions, plus 74 tanks from the 1st Army Tank Brigade at Arras on 21 May, most of the BEF withdrew to Dunkirk. The evacuation Operation Dynamo, began on 26 May; with over 330,000 British and French troops being evacuated by 4 June, and another 220,000 evacuated from other French ports. The majority of the BEF, which had sustained some 68,000 casualties, including 40,000 prisoners and most of the 51st (Highland) Division, was saved, but had to leave much of its equipment behind.
However, the British Army's first encounter with the Germans during the Second World War had been in the Norwegian Campaign, following the German invasion on 9 April 1940. The British had responded by sending troops, consisting mainly of Territorials of the 146th and 148th Infantry Brigades of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division (originally intended to be sent to France), along with regulars of the 15th Infantry Brigade (detached from the 5th Division in France) and the 24th Guards Brigade, to Åndalsnes, Namsos, and Narvik. After the German invasion of the Low Countries the following month, the British government's attention was diverted and the British force had to be evacuated on 8 June.
The occupation of Norway led to a possible German presence in Iceland, this along with the island's strategic importance, alarmed the British. On 10 May 1940, British troops carried out the invasion of Iceland "to insure the security of Iceland against a German invasion". The initial force of Royal Marines was replaced on 17 May, by the 147th Infantry Brigade, followed by most of the rest of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division.
After Italy declared war in June 1940, the British forces in Somaliland were put under the command of Arthur Reginald Chater, of the Somaliland Camel Corps. At the start of August, Chater had about 4,000 soldiers from the Somaliland Camel Corps, 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion, King's African Rifles (KAR), 1st Battalion, Northern Rhodesia Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment and 2nd Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment). The East African campaign started in August 1940, when the Italians attacked British Somaliland. The British were defeated after a brief campaign when faced with the Italian force of 23 colonial battalions in five brigades. The British Official History of events, records the total British casualties were 260 and Italian losses were estimated at 2,052.
In the North African Campaign, the Italian invasion of Egypt, started in September 1940. The Western Desert Force commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor had 36,000 men under command based within Egypt. The Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), Middle East Command was General Archibald Wavell. Units available were: one brigade of the 2nd New Zealand Division, two brigades of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the understrength 7th Armoured Division, a weakened cavalry regiment, a machine gun battalion and 14 infantry battalions, all short of equipment and artillery. These troops had to defend both Egypt and the Suez Canal against an estimated 215,000 Italian troops in Libya, and an estimated 200,000 troops in Italian East Africa. The British responded to the invasion of Egypt by launching Operation Compass in December, with the 4th Indian Infantry Division, 7th Armoured Division and from 14 December, troops of the 6th Australian Infantry Division, replaced the 4th Indian Division.
Operation Compass was a success and the Western Desert Force advanced across Libya capturing Cyrenaica, 115,000 Italian soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces and more than 1,100 aircraft with very few casualties of their own. Following the operation the Western Desert Force, now renamed XIII Corps and reorganised under HQ Cyrenaica Command, adopted a defensive posture. Over the next few months O'Connor became commander of British Troops Egypt while, Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson became military governor of Cyrenaica. Two experienced divisions were redeployed to Greece and the 7th Armoured Division, was withdrawn to the Nile Delta for refitting. XIII Corps was left with the newly arrived 2nd Armoured Division and the 9th Australian Division; both formations were inexperienced, ill–equipped, and in the case of the 2nd Armoured, under strength. In Egypt the British 6th Infantry Division was being formed, from various battalions, but had no artillery or support arms.
After Operation Compass the Italians despatched the Ariete and Trento Divisions to North Africa, and from February, to early May, Operation Sonnenblume saw the German Afrika Korps arrive in Tripoli to reinforce the Italians. Commanded by Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions, went on the offensive. The offensive destroyed the 2nd Armoured Division and forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat. During the offensive, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame and Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor, were captured, and the British command structure had to be reorganised. HQ Cyrenaica was dissolved on 14 April and its command functions taken over by the reactivated HQ Western Desert Force, under Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse. The Australian 9th Division fell back to the port of Tobruk, and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 miles (160 km) east to Sollum on the Libyan–Egyptian border.
In May, the 22nd Guards Brigade and elements of the British 7th Armoured Division launched Operation Brevity; conceived as a rapid blow in the Sollum area, intended to create advantageous conditions from which to launch Operation Battleaxe, the main offensive that was planned for June. Its objectives were to recapture the Halfaya Pass, drive the enemy from the Sollum and Capuzzo areas, and to deplete Rommel's forces. 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.
The follow-up to Brevity was Operation Battleaxe, involving the 7th Armoured Division, 22nd Guards Brigade and 4th Indian Infantry Division from XIII Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse. Battleaxe was also a failure, with the British forces defeated, Churchill wanted a change in command, so Wavell exchanged places with General Claude Auchinleck, as Commander-in-Chief, India.
The desert force was now reorganized into XXX Corps and XIII Corps and renamed the Eighth Army under the command of Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham. Their next attack, Operation Crusader, was a success, and Rommel withdraw to the defensive line at Gazala, and then all the way back to El Agheila. Crusader was the first victory over the Germans by British led forces in the war.
On 11 December, General Wavell ordered the 4th Indian Infantry Division to withdraw from Operation Compass to take part in an offensive against Italian forces in Italian East Africa alongside the 5th Indian Infantry Division. Both divisions faced vastly superior Italian forces (ten divisions in total) that threatened the Red Sea supply routes to Egypt as well as Egypt and the Suez Canal itself. The East African campaign culminated in March 1941, with a British victory in the Battle of Keren.
Having guaranteed to come to the aid of Greece in the event of war, Britain became involved in the Battle of Greece, and on 2 March Operation Lustre began which sent 62,000 troops to Greece. The Commonwealth force comprised the Australian and New Zealand Divisions withdrawn from the desert, and the British 1st Armoured Brigade. 'W' Force, as they became known after their commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, was too small and could not stop the Axis advance and was ordered to evacuate. The evacuation began on 24 April and by 30 April about 50,000 troops had been evacuated, the remaining 7–8,000 troops were captured by the Germans.
The Battle of Crete followed, the force consisted of the original 14,000 British garrison and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from Greece. The units involved were the British 14th Infantry Brigade, 2nd New Zealand Division (less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters), and the 19th Australian Brigade Group. In total, about 15,000 British and Commonwealth infantrymen, reinforced by about 5,000 non infantry personnel, and one composite Australian artillery battery. After a brief campaign 15,000 men were evacuated by the Royal Navy, leaving some 12,000 Allied troops, behind most taken as prisoners of war.
The Syria-Lebanon Campaign, was the invasion of Vichy French controlled Syria and Lebanon, in June–July 1941. The British and Commonwealth forces involved were the British 1st Cavalry Division, British 6th Infantry Division, 7th Australian Division, 1st Free French Division and the 10th Indian Infantry Division.
The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August–September by British, Dominion and Soviet Union forces, was to secure the Iranian oil fields and ensure supply lines in the Persian Corridor. The invasion from the South, was known as Iraqforce, under the command of General Edward Quinan. Iraqforce was made up of the 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, Indian 2nd Armoured Brigade Group, British 4th Cavalry Brigade and the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade.
In the South-East Asian theatre, the Battle of Hong Kong began on 8 December 1941, a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the conflict. The British defenders were from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots and the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, with supporting artillery and engineer units. The garrison also included British Indian Army battalions, two Canadian Army battalions and the locally raised Hong Kong Chinese Regiment and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. By the afternoon of 25 December 1941, it was clear that further resistance would be futile and after holding out for 17 days Hong Kong surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army.
On the Malay Peninsula the Japanese invasion of Malaya also started on 8 December 1941, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya Command, had nearly 90,000 troops from Britain, India, and Australia. During the Malayan Campaign the Japanese advanced 600 miles (970 km) in 70 days and forced Singapore to surrender in the new year.
In the Far East, Malaya Command defended stubbornly but was gradually pushed back, until the battle of Singapore, which surrendered on 15 February 1942. About 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops became prisoners of war during the Battle of Malaya. Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British history. The Japanese conquest of Burma started in January. It was soon apparent that the British and Indian troops in the Burma Campaign were too few in number, wrongly equipped and inadequately trained for the terrain and conditions. The force of about 60,000 troops retreated 1,000 miles (1,600 km), and reached Assam in India in May. In spite of their difficulties, the British mounted a small scale offensive into the coastal Arakan region of Burma, in December. The offensive under General Noel Irwin was intended to reoccupy the Mayu peninsula and Akyab Island. The 14th Indian Infantry Division had advanced to Donbaik, only a few miles from the end of the peninsula, when they were halted by a smaller Japanese force and the offensive was a total failure.
In North Africa the Axis forces attacked in May, defeating the Allies in the Battle of Gazala in June and capturing Tobruk and 35,000 prisoners. The Eighth Army retreated over the Egyptian border, where the German advance was stopped in the First Battle of El Alamein. Claude Auchinleck, who had assumed command of the Eighth Army following the defeat at Gazala, was sacked and replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander, who became C-in-C Middle East, at the same time Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was given command of the Eighth Army. The Axis forces made a new attempt to break through to Cairo in August, in the Battle of Alam el Halfa but were stopped after the British fought a purely defensive battle. The much-reinforced Eighth Army launched a new offensive in October the Second Battle of El Alamein, decisively defeating the Axis forces. Eighth Army then advanced westward, capturing 10,000 German and 20,000 Italian prisoners, 450 tanks and 1,000 guns.
In France the Dieppe Raid was carried out in August, the main assault was by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, supported by British Commandos. The landing failed to capture any German strong points and resulted in heavy casualties. The raid was justified by arguing that lessons learned at Dieppe, were put to good use later in the war. The Chief of Combined Operations Louis Mountbatten later claimed, "I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe at least ten more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944."
Following their experiences at Dieppe, the British developed a whole range of specialist vehicles nicknamed Hobart's Funnies. These vehicles were used successfully by the 79th Armoured Division in the British and Canadian landings in Normandy in 1944.
On 8 November in French North Africa, Operation Torch was launched. The British part of the Eastern Task force, landed at Algiers. The task force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, consisted of two brigades from the British 78th Infantry Division, the U.S. 34th Infantry Division and the 1st and 6th Commando Battalions. The Tunisia Campaign started with the Eastern Task Force, now redesignated First Army, and composed of the British 78th Infantry Division, 6th Armoured Division, British 1st Parachute Brigade, No. 6 Commando and elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. However, the advance was stopped by the reinforced Axis forces, and forced back having failed in the Run for Tunis.
The British 5th Infantry Division (minus the 15th Infantry Brigade), as well as the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group, and commandos were landed at Courrier Bay and Ambararata Bay, west of the major port of Diego Suarez, on the northern tip of Madagascar. The Allies eventually captured the capital, Tananarive, without much opposition, and then the town of Ambalavao. The last major action was at Andramanalina on 18 October, and the Vichy French forces surrendered near Ihosy on 8 November.
January 1943, in North Africa German and Italian troops retreating westwards reached Tunisia. The Eighth Army stopped around Tripoli for reinforcements to catch up. In the West, the First Army had received three more British divisions, the 1st, 4th and 46th Infantry Divisions, joined the 6th Armoured and 78th Infantry Divisions. By late March a second Corps headquarters, IX Corps, under Lieutenant-General John Crocker, had arrived to join V Corps, under Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey, in controlling the expanded army. During the first half of January the First Army kept up the pressure on the Axis forces, with limited attacks and by reconnaissance in strength. The First Army came under attack at Faïd Pass on 14 January and the U.S. II Corps, under Major General Lloyd Fredendall, at Kasserine Pass on 19 January, with the 1st Guards Brigade of the British 6th Armoured dDivision, engaging the 21st Panzer Division. The American forces retreated in disarray until heavy Allied reinforcements blunted the Axis advance on 22 January.
General Sir Harold Alexander arrived in Tunisia in late February to take charge of the 18th Army Group, created to control both the First and Eighth Armies and the Allied forces already fighting in Tunisia. The Axis forces attacked again on 6 March, (Operation Capri), but were easily repulsed by Eighth Army.
The First and the Eighth Armies attacked in March (Operation Pugilist) and April (Operation Vulcan). Hard fighting followed, and the Axis supply line was cut between Tunisia and Sicily. On 6 May, during Operation Vulcan, the British took Tunis, and American forces reached Bizerte. By 13 May the Axis forces in Tunisia had surrendered leaving 130,000 prisoners behind.
The Italian Campaign followed the Axis surrender in North Africa, first the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, followed by the Allied invasion of Italy in September. The Eighth Army along with American units landed in Sicily in what was the largest landings of the war, with 150,000 troops landed on the first day, and 500,000 by the end of the campaign. The Eighth Army landed almost unopposed on the South Eastern coast of Sicily, but became bogged down after a few days. The original plan had called for Eighth Army to advance on Messina, but because they could not make any headway being stuck on the slopes of Mount Etna, the U.S. Seventh Army, under Lieutenant General George Patton, were released. They advanced West then along the North coast to reach Messina first. One consequence of the British failure to break out was the escape of most of the Axis forces and their equipment to mainland Italy.
On 3 September Montgomery's Eighth Army landed on the toe of Italy directly opposite Messina, and Italy surrendered on 8 September. The main landing of Lieutenant General Mark Clark's U.S. Fifth Army, with the British X Corps under Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery, took place at Salerno on 9 September. The landings were fiercely opposed by the Germans who had brought up six divisions during the delay between the capture of Sicily and the invasion of in Italy, and at one point consideration was given to an evacuation. A third landing, Operation Slapstick at Taranto on the heel of Italy, was carried out by the British 1st Airborne Division, landing not by air but by sea. One consequence of the Eighth Army's landing on the toe of Italy was that they were now 300 miles (480 km) away from the main landings at Salerno, and in no position to offer any assistance. It was not until 16 September that forward patrols from the Eighth Army made contact with the U.S. 36th Division. 16 September is also notable for the Salerno Mutiny by about 600 men of the 50th (Northumbrian) and 51st (Highland) Infantry Divisions. They had sailed from Tripoli, on the understanding that they were to join the rest of their units, based in Sicily. Instead, once aboard ship, they were told that they were being taken to Salerno, to join the British 46th Infantry Division. Naples was reached on 1 October 1943 by the 1st King's Dragoon Guards, and the U.S. Fifth Army, which now consisted of three British and five U.S. divisions, reached the line of the Volturno River on 6 October. This provided a natural defensive barrier, which secured Naples, the Campainian Plain and the vital airfields on it from a German counterattack. Meanwhile, on the Adriatic coast, the Eighth Army had advanced to a line from Campobasso to Larino and Termoli on the Biferno river, but by the end of the year were still 80 miles (130 km) short of Rome.
The Dodecanese Campaign was an attempt by the British to liberate the Italian held Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea following the surrender of Italy, and use them as bases against the German controlled Balkans. The effort failed, with the whole of the Dodecanese falling to the Germans within two months, and the Allies suffering heavy losses in men and ships. (see Battle of Kos and Battle of Leros for further details).
In Burma, Brigadier Orde Wingate, and the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, or the Chindits as they were better known, infiltrated the Japanese lines in February, marched deep into Burma in Operation Longcloth. The initial aim was to cut the main North–South railway in Burma. Some 3,000 men entered Burma in columns and caused some damage Japanese communications, and cut the railway. But by the end of April, the surviving Chindits had crossed back over the Chindwin river, having marched between 750–1000 miles. Of the 3,000 men that had begun the operation, 818 men had been killed, taken prisoner or died of disease, and of the 2,182 men who returned, about 600 were too debilitated from their wounds or disease to return to active service.
The Allied invasion of Normandy took place on 6 June 1944: the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed at Gold Beach, and the British 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach; the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, with some British units, at Juno Beach. The British 6th Airborne Division was, during Operation Tonga, inserted prior to the landings to cover the left flank, and, in Operation Deadstick, captured the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges and the Merville Gun Battery. The British were involved in the Battle for Caen, but did not capture the city until 9 July, in the process suffering heavy losses on a scale alike to those sustained during the First World War. In mid-July Operation Goodwood was launched by Lieutenant General Richard O'Connor's VIII Corps, with the intention of forcing the Germans to commit their armoured reserves to the British on the eastern flank of the Normandy beachhead, while the Americans in Operation Cobra broke out from the Cotentin Peninsula on the western flank.
The 21st Army Group, under General Bernard Montgomery and comprising the Canadian First and British Second Armies, followed up the American break out, trapping the German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, capturing some 50,000 prisoners of war. The River Seine was reached on 19 August, bringing the Battle of Normandy to an end.
Just before that the Allied invasion of the South of France, had taken place on 15 August. The British contribution was comparatively small, coming from the 2nd Parachute Brigade, which was parachuted into Southern France (see 2nd Parachute Brigade in Southern France), as part of the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force.
After the almost entire destruction of the two German armies at Falaise, in the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine the British Guards Armoured Division liberated the Belgian city of Brussels on 3 September. The Belgian port of Antwerp was liberated by the British 11th Armoured Division the following day. Unfortunately the British left the banks of the River Scheldt in German hands, making the port of Antwerp unusable.
On 17 September Operation Market Garden began. British XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, provided the ground forces and the British 1st Airborne Division was part of a major airborne assault to take place in the Netherlands. The plan was for three airborne divisions (the British 1st and American 82nd and 101st, all under British I Airborne Corps command, under Lieutenant General Frederick Browning) of the First Allied Airborne Army to take the bridges at Eindhoven (U.S. 101st Airborne Division), Nijmegen (U.S. 82nd Airborne Division), and Arnhem (British 1st Airborne Division) and for XXX Corps to use them to cross the Rhine and on into Germany. XXX Corps was constantly delayed by German opposition while travelling up just one single road, managing to reach all but the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem who had been dropped 8 miles (13 km) from their bridge, and during the Battle of Arnhem were prevented from advancing into the town, The 1st Airborne Division was effectively destroyed, with three quarters of the unit missing when it returned to England, including two of the three brigade commanders, eight of the nine battalion commanders and 26 of the 30 infantry company commanders. Just over 2,000 troops out of 10,000 returning to friendly territory.
In an effort to use the port of Antwerp, the First Canadian Army including I Corps, began the Battle of the Scheldt and the Battle of Walcheren Causeway in October and November. After clearing the southern bank of the Scheldt, British and Canadian forces took the island of Walcheren after an amphibious assault.
The final battle in North West Europe during 1944, was the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans planned to attack through the Ardennes, splitting the American–British armies and capturing Antwerp. The Battle of the Bulge was ostensibly an American battle, but XXX Corps provided Britain's contribution, and Montgomery was the overall commander of the Northern sector.
During the Allied campaign in Italy, some of the hardest fighting of the entire war now took place. This was not helped by the withdrawal of forces for the Allied landings in Northern France. Operations carried out included: the long stalemate on the Winter Line (also known as the Gustav Line), and the hard fought Battle of Monte Cassino. In January, the Anzio landings, codenamed Operation Shingle, were an attempt to bypass the Gustav Line by sea. (see Anzio order of battle for British forces involved). Landing almost unopposed, with the road to Rome open, the U.S. VI Corps commander, Major General John Lucas, felt that he needed to consolidate the beachhead before breaking out. This gave the Germans time to concentrate their forces against him. Another stalemate ensued, with the combined American and British force facing stiff resistance, suffering severe losses and almost being driven back into the sea. When the stalemate was finally broken in the spring of 1944, with the launching of Operation Diadem, they advanced towards Rome, instead of heading north east to block the line of the German retreat from Cassino, thus prolonging the campaign in Italy. Progress was rapid, however, and, in August, the Allies came up against the Gothic Line and, by December, had reached Ravenna.
The 1944 campaign in Burma started with Operation Thursday, a Chindit force now designated 3rd Indian Infantry Division, were tasked with disrupting the Japanese lines of supply to the northern front. Further South the Battle of the Admin Box started in February, in preparation for when the Japanese Operation U-Go offensive. Although total Allied casualties were higher than the Japanese, the Japanese were forced to abandon many of their wounded. This was the first time that British and Indian troops had held and defeated a major Japanese attack. This victory was repeated on a larger scale in the Battle of Imphal (March–July) and the Battle of Kohima (April–June), giving the Japanese their largest defeat on land during the war. From August to November, the Fourteenth Army, under Lieutenant General William "Bill" Slim, pushed the Japanese back to the Chindwin River.
In Germany the 21st Army Group offensive towards the Rhine began in February. The Second Army pinned down the Germans, while the Canadian First and the U.S. Ninth Armys made pincer movements piercing the Siegfried Line. On 23 March, Second Army crossed the Rhine, supported by a large airborne assault (Operation Varsity) the following day. The British advanced onto the North German Plain, heading towards the Baltic sea. The Elbe was crossed by VIII Corps and the Elbe bridgehead expanded, Bremen fell on 26 April, Luebeck and Wismar on 2 May and Hamburg 3 May. On 4 May, all German forces in Denmark, Netherlands, and north west Germany surrendered to Montgomery.
In Italy, the poor winter weather and to the massive losses in its ranks during the autumn fighting, halted any advance until the spring. The Spring 1945 offensive in Italy commenced after a heavy artillery bombardment on 9 April. By 18 April, the Eighth Army had broken through the Argenta Gap and captured Bologna on 21 April. The 8th Indian Infantry Division, reached the Po River on 23 April. The British V Corps traversed the Venetian Line and entered Padua in the early hours of 29 April, to find that partisans had locked up the German garrison of 5,000 men. The Axis forces, retreating on all fronts and having lost most of its fighting power, was left with little option but surrender. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, signed the surrender on behalf of the German armies in Italy on 29 April formally bringing hostilities to an end on 2 May 1945.
In Burma the Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay started in January, despite logistical difficulties, the British were able to deploy large armoured forces in Central Burma. Most of the Japanese forces in Burma were destroyed during the battles, allowing the Allies to capture the capital, Rangoon on 2 May. Still in control of Malaya and parts of Burma, the Japanese surrendered on 14 August.
From the German invasion of Poland to victory over Japan, the war lasted just under six years. Only British and Dominion forces served throughout the entire period. The British recorded the death of between 300,000 and 383,667 combatants. Total British Army casualties during the Second World War amounted to 385,000 dead and wounded, with a further 180,488 made prisoner of war during the course of the conflict.
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