Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dominion Forces defending Britain, 1940

'The Battle for Britain'. A good article in the History Today magazine and website on the often overlooked Dominions' armies role in defending Britain in 1940.

He discusses in fascinating detail what the land forces did or nearly had to do. But, despite touching on the air and naval elements in the introduction, the author (Andrew Stewart Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London) fails to return to them and their roles.

 Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, Commanding Officer, with a Hawker Hurricane I aircraft of No.1 (F) Squadron, RCAF. Northolt, England. September 12th, 1940. [Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / e005176200) Via Taylor Empire Airways.]

Taking our specialty, the air element alone, overlooking (among other notable contributions) the involvement of 1 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF in the Battle of Britain, or, missing that 10 Squadron RAAF was in Britain on the declaration of war and was immediately loaned (by the Australian Prime Minister Menzies no less) to Britain's RAF Coastal Command for the duration, shows the author's excellence in land forces isn't carried over to the air and marine elements.

 Four original Sunderland flying boat captains of 10 Squadron RAAF at Pembroke Dock, Wales, in December 1939. [AWM 128163 - From The Australian Government site 'Australia's War 1939-45' here.]
To add New Zealand, 75(NZ) Squadron was operational in May 1940, adding weight to Bomber Command. (Detail here.)

Aircrews of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF walking past a Vickers Wellington Mark I at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, UK, before a night raid to Hamburg, Germany. [IWM via Wikipedia]

Further, the presence of three Canadian army co-operation Lysander Squadrons, awaiting action in the event of invasion in 1940, is directly applicable to his thesis of the ground forces' plans.

A focus on just the four Dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa is clearly stated, and reasonable, but the contributions of many others in the British Empire of the time, notably India (among many other smaller places) should get at least a line in the 'ideal' long article.

In an exercise of army cooperation at RAF Odiham, Lysander pilots of No. 400 Squadron RCAF rush to climb into the cockpits of their Lysanders, having just received their operational orders from an Army Liaison Officer standing at the desk at left. In the combat arena, the Lysander proved to be capable, but also vulnerable, resulting in a quick withdrawal from front line service. [Imperial War Museum via Vintage Wings of Canada, Here.]

In the original article, using illustrations sources from 1943 - 1945 for a focus on 1939 - 1940 is also poor. (Here, being an online blog, I've been able to link to other feature article online with illustrations and details on the subject aircraft and units mentioned.)

Generally History Today hits a high standard, and the land forces story seems, to me, to be well laid out here, and well worth reading, with many thought provoking nugget of what a horror invasion would have been.

Likewise the internal political elements that each Dominion faced, and a notable lack of consistent planning or even treatment from Britain in the care and recognition of the sovereignty of these forces is well covered, though, again, air elements (and I presume naval) would add more layers of understanding. Then there is avoiding hindsight.

He says, on a British report: " observer in the Foreign Office remarked: 'The Australians remain terrified of the Japanese.'" That disdain was the tone of the time. Hindsight, however tells us that Britain (and everyone else not actually fighting the Japanese in 1939) badly underestimated them. Australia ended up desperately needing its own armed forces back from British use to defend their homeland in early 1942, of course. In these areas the article does well to present the tone and expectations of the time, with an historian's accuracy.
one observer in the Foreign Office remarked: ‘The Australians remain terrified of the Japanese.’ - See more at:

A better introduction may have been all that was needed, otherwise a proper focus on the air element is missing. I suspect a naval historian would take a similar view.



  1. Good points.
    To further nitpick the article:
    "This led to volunteers travelling to Britain to join the Royal Air Force, 134 men from New Zealand, 112 Canadians, 37 Australians and 25 from South Africa. "
    These numbers refer to those serving with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. There were some 200 NZers with the RAF in England at the outbreak of war, and I assume more joined directly before the EATS pipeline was established.
    Also, from the known correspondence between the AU, NZ and UK governments, the diversion of the AIF and NZEF troops to Britain had more to do with Italy's expected declaration of war endangering the convoy than a requirement to have troops on hand. Once there, only troops on anti-invasion duties got a reasonable amount of equipment, so Freyberg pushed for the assignment so effective training could continue. The NZ troops had been scattered throughout NZ for their initial training, and had never operated together.

  2. Thanks Errol. Another element that's just the data used incorrectly.

  3. Well said, James. I will nitpick the article as well ... just who were the 37 Australians? No one agrees on the total so how can they be so conclusive?

  4. Thanks, Kristen! Of course I defer to you on the Fighter Command numbers question, and as we touched on before in discussion, it seems like a never-rechecked count from years ago. I wonder if you could recommend a book on the real Australians in Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain?

  5. The issue is that Andrew is not discussing the Battle of Britain but the Battle for Britain. This is currently the in vogue debate among academics and is one well worth having. In my view, and the reason that the RAF's role was so important, is that it was a failed amphibious operation. The importance of this is that the RAF spent a lot of time during the inter-war years arguing that you couldn't launch an invasion unless you had air superiority. As such, the RAF proved its view by winning the Battle and this was something the RAF's senior commanders also recognised. However, we shouldn't ignore the fact that both the Army and Royal Navy were preparing for invasion and we should not ignore that part of narrative. Indeed, as I argued in this review ( of Anthony Cumming's work on the Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain, is that we need a holistic account of the Battle of Britain. Only by taking account of the the Army and Royal Navy's preparation can we truly understand the RAF's significant role and that of the support given by the Dominions and Empire forces.


  6. Thanks, Ross, very good. Either 'Battle for...' or 'Battle of...' the data and parameters for the article were poorly set out, which was my concern. Unless it was within something like a conference papers set, which it wasn't. (We've all then gone further.) On the other hand, I think the author does a great job looking at the reality of the situation on the ground at the time, which I would argue is a distinct area to consider from, say, examining the chances of Operation Sealion's succeeding. We certainly agree on needing a Naval input and a holistic view of the whole thing, and without the hyperbolic reaction we got when the RN's claims were over-sold. It's interesting that you cite another History Today article as causing this reaction. The journal does, I think an excellent job, but like the recent 'Historians for Britain recent schmozzle, sometimes gets it badly wrong between 'provocative' and 'partial'.