Number of Soldiers: 65,000
Number of Fallen: 2,763
Number of Medal Holders: 2,245
The British Armed Forces in World War II operated within the framework of the 3 principal Arms – the British Army, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy (RN).
They operated under the direct command and management of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had appointed himself War Secretary as well.
In general, the Armed Forces consisted of the Home Forces, who operated in the Great Britain area, and the Overseas Forces.
These also included Forces from the different Dominions who operated in the framework of the various Theatre Arms and Commands. They were joined by Forces from Countries whose territories had been occupied by Germany and who established Governments in Exile (usually in London), and by National Armies who fought within the framework of the British Armed Forces.
The Royal Navy
The Royal Navy operated under the direction of the Admiralty, which was the oldest of the Military Offices (it had been established in the days of Henry the 8th) and considered in Britain as the most senior among the Arms.
In the course of the war, the British Navy operated within two main systems – the Home Fleet and the Regional Command Fleets. The Home Fleet operated in the framework of 6 Zonal Commands in Great Britain.
At the outbreak of the war only one external Fleet was operating – the Mediterranean Fleet – and its main Base was in the Port of Alexandria.
On the eve of Japan’s entrance into the war, in December, 1941, the Fleet Command in China was established, and based in Singapore. This Command was later converted into the Eastern Fleet and based in Mombasa, in East Africa, and it was responsible for the Indian Ocean Campaign, opposite the Japanese. As the war continued, it served as the basis for the establishment of the Pacific Fleet, the largest of all the Fleets that were operated by Britain in the war. Each of these Fleets operated a variety of different Vessels and Forces, including ships from Fleets of the British Empire as well as Fleets that operated on behalf of Governments in Exile who were functioning from London. They operated different Squadrons, according to Vessel type – Space Vessels of various kinds, Submarines, Auxiliary Vessels, and so on.
The Navy also organized itself to execute combined operations in advance of the marine landing operations, which were to be carried out in different Theatres of Combat.
Moreover, the Navy operated an Air Arm, which grew larger and stronger during the course of the war – from 5 Aircraft Carriers and 232 aircrafts to more than 50 Aircraft Carriers of all classes, which supported upwards of 1,300 aircrafts that were operating in the framework of 73 Squadrons. About 55% of these aircraft was the product of America.
Also operating within the framework of the Navy were the Royal Marines, who grew into a Division by 1941.
There was a Women’s Service in the Navy as well, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), which fulfilled shore duties in place of male personnel that was being allocated for combat missions. At the end of the war this Force stood at 72,000 women. Alongside the WRNS operated Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service, a Women’s Aid Service.
The Navy strengthened, from 180,000 people when the war erupted to 783,000 people when it ended.
The Marines grew from about 12,000 to 74,000 people respectively.
The Royal Navy suffered more than 50,000 casualties.
The Royal Air Force
The youngest of the Arms, it too operated within two main systems – the Air Force in Britain (the Metropolitan Air Force) and the Air Force outside Britain.
The Air Force in Britain operated in the framework of a number of categorical Commands – the Bomber, Fighter, Coastal and Training Commands. After the war broke out, additional Commands were established – Maintenance, Transport, Army Cooperation, and more.
Operating outside Britain were several Regional Operations Headquarters, such as RAF Middle East Command (which was converted into Headquarters Mediterranean and Middle East), with the Western Desert Air Force being one of its important elements, and the Force’s Headquarters in South-East Asia. A number of Groups, which included various Squadrons, operated within each Regional Command.
The Air Forces of the Dominions – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa – also operated under the RAF’s command, as well as the Air Forces of Countries that had been occupied by the Germans – the Czech Republic, Belgium, Holland, France, Norway and Poland, who were operating their National Squadrons.
Also operating within the framework of the Force was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), whose women served as Radar Operators and NCO’s of Operations, among other assignments, and in additional support duties, alongside Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service.
Furthermore, Ground Units providing protection to the airports also operated within the framework of the Force.
The Air Force too grew larger and stronger during the course of the war, from 193,000 people at the beginning to about 950,000 people at the conclusion.
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force grew larger as well, from about 17,000 to 153,000 women.
Special emphasis in the Force, during the course of the war, was placed on the training system, and especially on preparing the increasing quantities of pilots and air-crews that were required for manning the also growing Force Array and for replacing the many crews who were killed in the course of the war.
The Royal Air Force suffered close to 70,000 casualties.
The British Ground Force
In the beginning of the war, the British Ground Force consisted of a number of Infantry Divisions, most of which were deployed throughout the Kingdom.
The Forces outside Britain included an Infantry Division in Eretz Israel and a system of Garrisons in the various Colonies. In India, a considerable share of the British Ground Force was present on the level of Battalions, which were incorporated with the Indian Army.
Two Armored Divisions were in the process of being raised; one of them, the 7th Armored Division, later became famous in the Western Desert Campaigns as the “Desert Rats”.
The British Ground Forces’ initial involvement in the war was in the French Campaign. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was dispatched to France with 2 Corps, each of them comprising 2 Divisions, with a total of about 152,000 people. It was essentially a defensive Force, lacking any Armored Forces and without adequate air support to conduct offensive missions. The Force was later supplemented by additional Divisions and its power increased to 390,000 people, part of them serving in rear areas. Nevertheless, this was a Force who had not been properly prepared for modern warfare, as became clear in practice. The Force was evacuated to Britain through the Ports of the Channel, primarily via Dunkirk, while leaving behind some 68,000 dead and particularly large quantities of weapons and varied military equipment.
A Women’s Corps, called the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), was also established within the framework of the Ground Force, and so was a Women’s Nursing Service, similar to those of the other Arms, operating alongside it.
Following the Dunkirk evacuation, the troops were organized in Theatre Commands – the Home Forces Command, and the Middle East Command, based in Cairo, which was responsible for the Campaigns in the Western Desert, East Africa, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
During the preparation stage for the invasion to North Africa, and in the framework of cooperation with the U.S.A., the First Army was raised, and towards the invasion of Normandy the Second Army was raised.
Within the framework of the Middle East Command, 3 Armies, the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth, were raised, but only the Eighth Army experienced real combat in the Western Desert; the others functioned primarily as a source for its reinforcement.
The Twelfths Army was raised in Burma, within the framework of the Allied South-East Asia Command Headquarters, as well as the Fourteenth Army, which was subject to the Indian Army.
Higher Command Headquarters were operated in the various Theatres based on need. They commanded Army Groups that usually comprised 2 Armies, one of them sometimes being American or Canadian.
The Army grew stronger during the course of the war, from about 900,000 people at the start to about 3.5 million men and women soldiers at the conclusion. Overall, it comprised 11 Armored Divisions, 34 Infantry Divisions and 2 Airborne Divisions.
The Women’s Corps grew from 36,000 to 190,000 respectively.
In total, the British Ground Forces suffered 144,000 dead.
One of the areas that developed during the war was the Special Units and Forces.
Their inception was in the Commando Units that were established towards the Operation in Narvik, in 1940. Those were continued with Units that carried out raids on the European Coast, with the Navy’s Commando Units and also with the “Long Range Desert Group”, as the Commando Force that operated in the Western Desert was called. It was continued with the “Special Air Service” and with “Popski’s Private Army”. Commando Forces were also operating in the Campaign in Burma.
In addition to the Armed Forces, the Defense Force was organized and operated in Britain. It was established on, 14 May 1940, and later, following the German invasion of the Lowlands, it turned into the Home Guard. Based on volunteers, the Guard grew larger and at its peak, in 1943, reached upwards of 1,700,000 people (of whom about 31,000 were women). In the summer of 1940, when fear of a possible German invasion of Britain intensified, this Guard began conducting defensive missions that, until then, had been fulfilled by the Army, and thus enabling the latter to focus on building its power and preparing towards the future Campaigns. As the Guard got more and more established, it assumed the character of a military organization: uniforms, ranks, frameworks and the like.
About 140,000 of its members manned the numerous Anti-Aircraft Batteries, which were deployed throughout the Kingdom against raids of the German “Luftwaffe”.
The Observer Corps was also put into action, and its members, who were volunteers as well, manned and operated the Radar Array State-wide and helped with the defense of the Country’s skies. So too did they assist with the warnings that preceded German V-1 Rocket attacks.
Alongside these also operated the Civil Defense volunteers, whose contribution was most important, especially during the “Blitz” – the German Air Raids on Britain.
Special Operations Executive (SOE)
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a Secret Service, for the purposes of conducting Subversive Warfare in the territories that have been occupied by the Axis Countries. Read about this subject in the article on the “Special Operations Executive”, attached to this page.
The Code Breakers
One of the lesser known Theatres of Battle in any war, World War II included, is the Scene of Signals Intelligence (contracted to SIGINT) in which information that is being transferred through the communication and electronic system a foe operates is collected by running certain technical means.
This is the “War of the Minds”, as it is commonly called, between the intelligence services and the foe’s various security elements. The foe’s security officers make every effort on their part to conceal and encrypt the contents of the voluminous and valued traffic that is being transmitted without a stop by various communication media of Military and Civilian State bodies, such as the Diplomatic Service, the Intelligence Services, and so on.
Facing them, Intelligence Services invest every possible effort as well in order to penetrate the circles of defense that have been placed for the purpose of protecting this precious information, and vice versa.
In Britain, this matter was handled by a body called, the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), which was located in a place called, Bletchley Park.
This body grew rapidly in the course of the war, and from 150 people, in 1939, it reached about 3,500 members in 1942, and more than 10,000 in 1945, some of whom were civilians and the others coming from within the Army.
They focused primarily on breaking German and Japanese Codes; including the Codes of the German Machine known as “Enigma” and the Japanese one known as “Purple”, from which a lot of valuable intelligence was obtained.
Churchill considered the work performed in Bletchley Park as the “Secret Weapon” that won the war.
The Jewish British Soldiers
Britain’s Jews, together with the refugees who had gotten there from the Continent, numbered approximately 435,000. About 65,000 (around 15%) of them enlisted in the British Army, men and women alike, and served in all corps and in all duties.
About 14,000 served in the Royal Air Force. One of them, Lionel Cohen, indeed reached the position of Wing Commander and was awarded with many decorations. Another one, Robert Tuck (“Lucky Tuck”), shot down 29 enemy airplanes, and he is 8th on list of Fighter Pilot Aces in the British Air Force.
A number of Jewish Officers who served in the Ground Forces even reached the rank of General. Most famous among them were: Brigadier Kisch, who was Commander of the 8th Army’s Royal Engineers Corps, under the command of Montgomery; Brigadier Edmund Myers, he too of the Royal Engineers; and Brigadier Binyamin, who was assigned as Commander of the Jewish Brigade that had been raised.
Around 1,500 Jews served in the British Navy. Among them was Commander Jessel, who served as a Destroyer Commander; and Commander Bright, who commanded over a Squadron of Minesweepers.
Present in Britain in 1940 were about 50,000 Jewish Refugees from Germany and Austria, who were regarded as Enemy Aliens and not allowed to enlist in the British Army. Following great efforts they were permitted to join the Pioneer Units, but without weapons. Fifteen Companies were raised in this framework, with about 4,500 Jews. In the year 1943, the number of Jewish Refugees in the Army climbed to 6,700 persons and they were permitted to join the Fighting Forces. Some 3,000 of them volunteered to those Forces and their contribution was significant, especially in the Engineers, the Intelligence, the Commando and the Paratrooper Corps.
Many Jews fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to France in 1940 (and among them 5 Pioneer Companies from those that have been raised on the Refugees’ basis), and they participated in the tough battles which were conducted there against the Germans. They later withdrew with the Force to Dunkirk and from there evacuated to Britain.
Later in the war, Jews within the ranks of the British Army fought on other Fronts as well. In North Africa, in the Battles of El Alamein, in 1942, under the Command of Montgomery, they took part in holding back the Germans and defeating the German Korps Commanded by Rommel; and later, on the Italian Front, they were among the Allied Forces landing in Sicily and in Southern Italy, in 1943, and they even participated in the liberation of Rome, in June, 1944.
Furthermore, with British Forces they took part in the Invasion of Normandy, on 6 June 1944, and later they took part in various Battles in Western Europe in which British Forces participated, until the surrender of Nazi Germany.
Jews also fought in the Army Units that operated in the Far East in general, and particularly in Burma.
There were even about 30,000 Jews from Eretz Israel who volunteered and served in the 3 Arms of the British Army, in France, in Greece and Crete, in the Western Desert, in Western Europe, in Burma, and also in the Battles in Italy, within the framework of the Jewish Brigade that had been raised on the basis of volunteers from Eretz Israel.
So were there thousands of Jews who fought in the various Theatres of Battle within the ranks of the Armies of the British Empire’s Countries and Colonies (see chapters in this section on Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India and Eretz Israel).
2,763 British Jews were killed in the war (Army – 1,861; Navy – 121; Air Force – 700; Merchant Marine – 50; and also 762 Jews from Eretz Israel).
Many were awarded with various Decorations and with Medals for their service and their fighting (3 received the Victoria Cross, the highest Military Decoration in the British Army, and 4 received the George Cross, the second in importance).