The British Army
The British Army rightly regards its action during the Second World War as its 'Finest hour'. It somehow managed to turn a seemingly endless tide of defeats into a string of victories. The opening years of the war saw a succession of reverses as whole Divisions were marched into captivity in France, Africa and the Far East. British Generals seemed to stumble from one catastrophe to the next while the Axis was triumphant in every theatre. Somehow, the British, Commonwealth and Free Forces endured the nightmare until, by 1942, they finally began to wrest the initiative from the foe, and the following year saw offensives on all fronts. Yet the victories that followed were won at a terrible cost. The British Army filled just over 144,000 graves between 1939 and 1945; almost half of the 264,443 service personnel who died during the war. A further 92,673 UK civilians also perished.
In some areas, the argument is proposed that the British were simply treading water until the Americans arrived to save them. As a Briton, that is one thing that is absolutely guaranteed to make my head implode. Only the most chauvinistic person could attempt to deny that the influx of American manpower and material was the turning point in the British war effort. Until that time, operations had been severely restricted by the industrial output of the UK which was unable to meet the burgeoning demands of the British war machine. With the arrival of the US, it suddenly became realistic to talk about putting Allied troops inside Fortress Europe on a tremendous scale.
The fact that the United States Army was able to mobilise so many men, deploy so many Infantry and Armored Divisions is often used to diminish the efforts and sacrifices of the British soldier during the war. No one, myself especially, would dare to say the American sacrifice was not the key to victory in the West. Without it, Britain would have been unable to breach the Atlantic Wall alone. But to me, the dismissal of the British contribution to the war, from whatever quarter, is an insult to those men who died in its prosecution. And in the numbers game (who had more men, who had more tanks), we both lose out to the Red Army in every category.
I will always believe that the bitterest regret of the British forces during World War Two was not simply their eviction from the Continent by Nazi Germany in 1940. I would argue it was the knowledge that they would never be able to return to face the enemy again without the massive support provided by the United States. Offering a helping hand is always preferable to receiving one. The realists in the British camp knew the United States' entry into the war would see them largely assume political and strategic responsibility for its undertaking. The gulf of popular opinion on whether that was a positive development or otherwise is as wide as the Atlantic itself. I still hope one day to finish my attempted amateur analysis of the complicated and often fraught Anglo-American relationship during the period, but until then the above will have to suffice.
The British Army experimented with a number of Divisional organisations during the war. In the end, only three types saw service; The Infantry Division, the Armoured Division, and the Airborne Division, though the Mixed Division did actually make a limited appearance. These Divisions fielded four distinct models of infantry based battalions alongside the armoured, reconnaissance and artillery units. The British Army also deployed a host of irregular formations, Special Forces in today's jargon, foremost of which was the Commando. The Royal Marines adopted Commando organisation, and with the unseemly speed of the demobilisation of their Army colleagues in 1946 became the sole possessors of the title.
The links below lead to a description of each infantry type battalion. There is also a study of the higher formations in which these battalions served.
The British Infantry Battalion
The British Motor Battalion
The British Parachute Battalion
The British Air Landing Battalion
Other British Infantry Battalions
The British Commando
British Divisional Organisations
Battalion Summary Tables
The Commonwealth Armies
Published works and Websites