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The Inter War Years: Britain and The Second World War

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 19 November 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Britain’s role internationally in the causation of the Second World War and her pre war preparation.

1. Introduction

These years began with Lloyd George’s wildly inaccurate claim in the 1918 election campaign he would deliver, as he put it: “A land fir for heroes”. Simply pipe dreams and many Great War Veterans in hard times threw their medals into the Thames in disgust. The Conservative Unionist Government of Lloyd George delivered the Independence of Ireland but at the cost of a divided Ireland, through the government of Ireland Act 1921. India was left to suffer until 1948 under British rule.

2. The slump: 1926 Onwards

A terrible onslaught of poverty and destitution on the North of England in particular. The Police Courts in London and elsewhere persecuted the misnamed “neer-do-wells” and “down and outs”. Yes come thirty years later Macmillan could truly say “you have never had it so good” (1959 election). The hated dole was the bare pittance. The pride of the English working class was enshrined in the Jarrow hunger march to London from the Tyne (1936). When it came to the crunch the general strike was broken by the Army and England came near to revolution.

3. The National Government of Ramsay Macdonald

Macdonald had the sense to enact Keynesian work creation programmes to ease the deflation of too little money in the economy. Truly the North/South divide had never been worse. The National Government’s policies eventually turned the corner certainly in the South with house building, owner occupiers, car production and ownership of vehicles. Baldwin succeeded Ramsay Macdonald as Prime Minister and presided over those productive years to the outbreak of war, with the Neville Chamberlain administration interval leading to hostilities themselves.

4. Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain could not understand Hitler should never be trusted and the sooner we stood up to him the better. Hitler was weaker in 1938 than in September 1939 when war was declared. We could have forced his hand in 1938. Should we have declared war on Germany on 16 March 1939 with her occupation of the Sudetenland? Without doubt yes (if not then earlier under a League of Nations mandate with the Anschluss - When the Nazis invaded sovereign Austria and annexed that State). Our French allies would have had to come with us. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came later on 23 August 1939 to divide up Poland. It is arguable Russia could have been kept out of this August 1939 pact if we had been tougher on Hitler and more reasonable to Russia our Great War ally (see “Drift to War” by Richard Lamb Senior).

5. The landscape to the Second World War

We had suffered grievously in men twenty years before 1939 – our industry had been flattened by the slump and our men and women were battered by poverty and the interwar depression. Yes there had been some recovery under Baldwin but the Northern Industrial heartlands did not recover soon enough, there was no NHS. We could not defeat Germany alone as Churchill recognised. The U.S. had to be bought in and as it turned out Hitler laid Russia on a plate for us. The main British war effort was Fighter Command and secondly, largely Bomber Harris himself to German and occupied territories’ targets. Without these RAF aircraft manned by British and Dominion and Empire crew the battle would never have reached Festung Europa from Britain. The Arctic convoys helped turn the tide for sure. Amazingly despite the 1920’s and1930’s depression we produced the necessary aircraft. Make no mistake the British were tired in 1939 due to the First War and troubled interwar years. Our troops bore the marks of fatigue even in North Africa as Rommel rolled us up to Cairo’s gates. It was a close run thing and the Russians cold have been gravely and mortally pincered in the East, leaving Britain fatally exposed. A second Nazi-Soviet Pact would have been in the offing. U.S. isolationism made us extraordinarily short of allied manpower and equipment. Pearl Harbour turned the U.S. against Japan in December 1941 and Roosevelt had war declared on him by Germany and Italy at that time. There was no inevitability in the sequence of subsequent victories. The U.S. might have entered the war too late if the Russian Eastern front had quite possibly collapsed in 1943, as it did in 1917. German troops, tanks and aircraft would have been swiftly moved by their High Command to the West to confront the U.S. threat to her Atlantic wall. Either the World War II would have been lost by the Allies or the length would have increased significantly and the casualty toll would have mounted intolerably. A lot depended on our Russian allies. Without the Eastern front it is debatable whether the U.S., with us at their side, could have fought successfully such bitterly contested seaborne landings, as would have been required. Needless to say Rommel in North Africa would have had all the men and war material he needed, if the Russian Front had collapsed in 1943 as the German General staff intended and planned. German morale would have been high to defeat any bridgehead in France. The Bomber Command of Harris was taking heavy casualties from flak – the same would have applied to the American aircraft on missions over occupied Europe and Germany.

At the end of the day it is the foot soldiers who win the battles not the heavy guns and aircraft e.g. The Spring offensive at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam (mid to late 1960’s) by the Vietcong and North Vietnam army. At the very least you may say the Second World War outcome was no dead certainty but in the balance. Germany’s Luftwaffe (air force) had been heavily involved in Russia and on my argument a lot of her modern fighters and bombers would have been released to the West to counter the Anglo-American air offensive against Germany and her occupied zones if the Eastern front folded: Remember the Soviet Empire shut down in 1989.

6. Conclusion

The lesson of this historical episode is to look after your men and especially your women, in case of need or emergency. Yes you must also look after your friends, as Churchill our war leader did across the Atlantic, from May 1940. However we very nearly gave away the Second World War in our failure to secure Russian support in August 1939. Pure communism, the badge of Russia in the 1930’s, had nothing in common with German fascism - despite the totalitarianism in both regimes. Our democracy had many citizens who supported or fought for Republican Spain in 1936-39, as did Communists from Russia. How could we possibly sacrifice and reverse that position within months of the close Spanish Civil War to let the prized Communist Russia slip through the net into Nazi Germany’s hands. Stalin and Hitler eventually fought each other to the last man at Stalingrad (1942/43) and Berlin (1945). The answer lies in foolishly weak and cowardly diplomacy at Munich in 1938 with Adolf Hitler, conducted by Neville Chamberlain our Prime Minister, who as one observer noted, looked at politics through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe. Thus Russia was not encouraged to support our so called Anti- Nazi stand as we caved in during 1938 and 1939 and earlier over the reoccupation by Germany of the Rhineland, taken from her in 1919 at Versailles. Russia was given no example of strength in depth when it came to our relations to Nazi Germany. Thus she was inveigled to not come up to the mark against her natural enemy Germany in August 1939 – June 1941 but to go with the tide and agree with Hitler, or at any rate not start hostilities against him.

I say Britain the lead ally was guilty of gutless and pathetic leadership which lead to the loss of a lot of lives and may even have landed Europe with a Nazi hegemony. Russia rightly became our confirmed ally against Nazi Germany. The Ribbentrop – Molotov Pact was a risky agreement that lasted nearly two years – an aberration, yet it cost Poland and the Polish Jews dear. Its very inception should have been suffocated. The Second World War pivoted on that volatile Pact and its consequences.