5 Facts About the British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War

Jonathan Fennell

4 mins

12 Dec 2018

The British and Commonwealth Armies that fought the Second World War were made up of over 10 million soldiers from Britain, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the many other components of the British Empire.

These armies made numerous contributions to the peoples, institutions and states of the British Commonwealth: they played a key role in the military defeat of the Axis, albeit to different extents in different theatres at different times.

Their varying levels of performance at critical moments during the long global conflict were a factor in the declining extent and influence of the Empire; and they functioned as an instrument of social change in all the countries from which they were recruited.

A map of the British Empire and Commonwealth during World War Two.

Here are 5 interesting facts about the British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War:

1. Letters by those in the British and Commonwealth Armies were censored

This was done by the military establishment, who turned the letters into regular intelligence reports. 925 of these censorship summaries, based on 17 million letters sent between the battle and home fronts during the war, still survive today.

These remarkable sources cover the campaigns in the Middle East (most importantly in East and North Africa and Tunisia), in the Mediterranean (most importantly in Sicily and Italy), in North-West Europe (most importantly in Normandy, the Low Countries and Germany), and in the South-West Pacific (most importantly in New Guinea).

The censorship summaries allow the soldiers’ story in the Second World War to be told on a level comparable with that of the great statesmen, such as Churchill, and military commanders, such as Montgomery and Slim.

Australian infantry sit next to a captured Japanese mountain gun on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea, 1942.

2. Soldiers voted in key elections during the conflict

The soldiers who fought to defend democracy were also periodically required to partake in it. Elections were held in Australia in 1940 and 1943, in South Africa and New Zealand in 1943 and in Canada and the United Kingdom in 1945. A referendum on state powers was held in Australia in 1944.

Remarkably, considering the challenges of holding elections during a world war, detailed statistics of the soldiers’ vote survive for nearly all of these national polls, allowing historians to ascertain whether this body of electors influenced outcomes in some of the defining elections of twentieth century.

A British soldier in the Middle East votes in the 1945 election.

3. The victory campaigns of 1944/45 were built on a remarkable transformation in tactics

The British and Commonwealth Armies demonstrated a remarkable ability to reform and adapt in the extraordinarily challenging situation that unfolded after the catastrophic defeats in France, the Middle and Far East between 1940 and 1942. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, they developed a risk averse firepower heavy solution to tackling the Axis on the battlefield.

As the war wore on and the British and Commonwealth Armies became progressively better equipped, well led and prepared for combat, they developed a more mobile and aggressive solution to the combat problem.

One of the greatest disasters for the British in the Far East was the fall of Singapore in February 1942. It was the largest surrender in British military history. From the documentary Imphal and Kohima: Britain’s Greatest Battle on HistoryHit.TVWatch Now

4. There was a major change in the way the army was trained…

It soon became apparent to wartime leaders and military commanders that training lay at the heart of problems facing the British and Commonwealth Armies in the first half of the war. In Britain, Australia and India, vast training institutions were established where many thousands of soldiers could practice the art of fighting.

In time, training bred confidence and allowed citizen soldiers to match the performance of even the most professional of armies.

Troops of 19th Division open fire on a Japanese strong point in Mandalay in March 1945.

5. …and in the way military morale was managed

The British and Commonwealth Armies came to understand that when the stress of combat pushed soldiers to, and beyond, their limits, they needed strong ideological motivations and an effective welfare management system as a bulwark to crisis. For these reasons, the armies of the British Empire developed comprehensive army education and welfare processes.

Indian infantrymen of the 7th Rajput Regiment smile as they are about to go on patrol in Burma, 1944.

When the Army failed to deliver in these regards, a setback could turn into a rout and a rout could easily turn into a disaster. As the war progressed, formations in the field became increasingly effective at using censorship to gauge when and if units were experiencing morale problems, vital shortages in welfare amenities, or if they needed to be rotated and rested.

This reflective and remarkably sophisticated system of monitoring and managing the human factor in war was to make all the difference.

Jonathan Fennell is the author of Fighting the People’s War, the first single-volume history of the Commonwealth in World War Two, which is published on 7 February 2019.