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  • Writer's pictureMichael Baker

Was Britain Really 'Alone' in WW2?

Britain was on the winning side in both world wars. Yet it remembers them very differently. Partly perhaps because WW1 failed to 'finish the job', partly too because Hitler and the Nazis posed a more existential threat than Kaiser Bill, we characterise the Second World War as somehow more 'heroic' than the First - the 'Good War' as the Americans call it. This image of exceptionalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, has had an extraordinary shelf life, informing post-war international relations and domestic politics alike right up to the present day. However, historians now seriously question this undiluted image of World War Two as not just overly simplistic but in some way deeply misleading. In the first place, Britain in 1939 was the richest country in Europe and stood at the hub of a worldwide trading empire which could marshal massive resources, not least the largest merchant marine in the world as well as the biggest oil tanker fleet. By 1945, in terms of manpower alone, it could call on some 8 million servicemen from India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Moreover, from Dunkirk onwards - that is, well before Lend Lease kicked in 1941 - the United States was a key exporter to Britain of food and materiel, so there was never any real danger, even allowing for the battle of the Atlantic, that the country would starve - unlike the Germans and many millions in occupied Europe and war-torn Asia. Much of contemporary politics in the UK, notably the Brexit debate, is still built around a David-and-Goliath narrative in which plucky little Britain stood alone in WW2 and survived against all the odds. This myth bears no relation to the reality of a country which, while clearly enduring hardships, was able to fight a resource-rich and technologically-innovative war alongside powerful allies.

Listen to Episode 1 of the new series of Unknown Warriors about the Second World War.

If you think you know about WW2, it's time to think again.

An Understanding History Podcast

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