Monday, May 11, 2015

British strategy during World War II and imperialism

Winston Churchill is frequently quoted as saying that he did not become the King’s First Minister in 1940 to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, implying that his primary aim in the war was to see that the Empire emerged intact. But this comment, his public backing for the Empire and his extremely prickly reactions to efforts by US President Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to involve themselves in Indian affairs give a misleading impression of British policy towards Asia and the Pacific during World War II (James 1970: 179–215; Sherwood 1949: 516; Charmley 1993: 495; Hull 1948: 1482–95). Government Ministers knew that they would have to accept Indian independence after the war, however much Churchill himself disliked this. Ministers were only too well aware that Britain’s position in South East Asia had been undermined by the loss of Malaya and Burma. As ministerial diaries make clear, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, took seriously both Roosevelt’s idea of Britain, China and the US sharing control of Malaya after its recapture, and Chinese demands to regain Hong Kong (Barnes and Nicholson 1988: 831, 833, 851). In terms of defence, Ministers focused their attention on the protection of Britain itself, on the battle of the Atlantic to keep Britain’s supplies coming despite the U-boat offensive and on the desert war to protect the Middle East, with its precious oil resources. Offensively, they planned to intensify the strategic bombing of German cities in order to undermine their morale, clear the whole of French North Africa of Axis forces, support the Soviet struggle with weapons and supplies, invade Italy and subsequently liberate France and the rest of Europe. Asia and the Pacific were to be left until every one of these other goals had been achieved, or were well on the way to achievement. As the Commander of British Forces in Burma, William Slim, put it after the war:

It was unavoidable that the Fourteenth Army should be the Cinderella of all the Armies, receiving only what the richer sisters in Africa and Europe could spare. As a result throughout the campaign, we were short of men, equipment and ammunition. (SLIM 2–3, 6 February 1946)

Thus, the 750,000 Anglo-Indian forces involved in desperate fighting along a 700 mile front in Burma considered themselves ‘forgotten’ by London and, as a result, allegedly voted against the Conservatives in the 1945 general election. Slim said that he told Churchill before the election that 70 per cent of the men in his army would vote Labour and the other 30 per cent would abstain out of affection for the Prime Minister (Young 1980: 716).

The way in which the India–Burma theatre was marginalized by London was epitomized by the allocation of aircraft. Amery and Slim were in agreement that air power was crucial in Asia. Because of the great size of the theatre, Amery wanted more transport aircraft and towed gliders for assaults (AMEL 2/1/33 file 3, Letter of 18 November 1941). Slim believed that British troops could achieve superiority over their enemies in Burma only if they made extensive use of transport and ground support aircraft. Backed by Churchill, the Royal Air Force (RAF) responded unenthusiastically, as it was doggedly husbanding resources for the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. But the value of the air transport which the Indian authorities managed to prise loose from London was demonstrated overwhelmingly in Burma for evacuating casualties and for keeping his forces supplied even when surrounded by Japanese. Using 340 transports, Slim moved six of his divisions by air, landing 2,000 tons of men and supplies daily. There was nothing like it again until the Berlin airlift in 1948–49, when the whole of US and British air power was involved (SLIM 3–2; Barnes and Nicholson 1988: 804; Calvocoressi et al. 1989: 532; RAF Historical Society 1995: 89–91). According to Slim, the great Japanese advantages were in the courage and mobility of their troops: ‘our one real advantage over the Jap – air supremacy gained by the sheer skill and courage of the allied air forces – gave us the answer’. Desperate struggles to penetrate thick jungle, at which the frugal and courageous Japanese excelled, could be avoided to some extent by air supply (SLIM 3–2, Lecture to the Press Club).

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