The Empire Becomes a War Zone

Compiled by S. Davis & J. Adams – Contributions to WWI & II

WORLD WAR II from 1939 to 1945

Strategic Planning On a Grand Scale

At the outbreak of WW2, not only was Britain the only super power in the world, but she was still at the centre of a very large empire. As such, all strategic planning for the war had to be organised and co-ordinated to cover over sixty different countries and their civilian populations.

This included replicating services like the “Home Guard” forces that were instrumental to civil defence, to implement the necessary services locally.

The Second World War

The huge involvement of men and women from the West Indies, Africa, India and many smaller Commonwealth nations in the allied war effort is one of the lesser known stories of the Second World War. They provided man power, equipment and support in many areas throughout the world and made a vital contribution to the war effort.

At the end of the war over three million men were under arms, 2 million of them in the Indian Army, over 200,000 from East Africa and 150,000 from West Africa. This is a hugely impressive figure given that many thousands more civilians from the Empire were also involved in the war effort The vast majority were volunteers (but some colonies did use limited forms of conscription) who played a major part in the operations in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East.

Britain’s population of about 7,000 people from the ethnic minorities also played a significant role. Many were merchant seamen who prior to the war had settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields. As the war progressed, the Merchant Navy, which had continued to employ sailors from all over the world, lost many of its men to the Royal Navy, recruited under the Naval Discipline Act, Seafarers from India, Africa, Malaya, Burma, the West Indies, China and Malta also provided manpower to assist the Allied cause at sea.

The Royal Air Force also looked to recruit personal from across the Commonwealth. At First, recruitment concentrated on British Subjects of European descent. However, after October 1939 questions of nationality and race were put aside, and all Commonwealth people became eligible to join the Royal Air Force on equal terms. By the end of the Second World War, over 17,500 such men and women had volunteered to join the RAF, in a variety of roles, and a further 25,000 served in the Royal Indian Air Force.

The Second World War in Africa, South of the Sahara

When Italy entered the war by attacking British African territories in 1940, local troops of the Kings African Rifles and the Somaliland Camel Corps were immediatelymobilised.India despatched a substantial force that helped to defeat the Italians in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Two complete Divisions of African infantry, comprising Nigerian, Gold Coast and Kings African Rifles soldiers, were all involved in the Italian East African campaign which ended with the surrender of Italian troops at Gondar in November 1941.  African troops also helped conquer Madagascar and were later deployed to Burma to assist in the defeat of the Japanese.

Naval presence in African waters was maintained from various bases around the African coastline.  Several Colonial naval forces had been established in African states during the 1930’s and were maintained by their Colonial Governments to protect their territorial waters.  Close collaboration between these forces and the Royal Navy East Indies Fleet assisted with the protection of convoy traffic around the continent. 

The RAF created a chain of airfields and other installations in West Africa to support the vital 3,600 mile air reinforcement route between Takoradi and Cairo – the ‘Takoradi Route’ – and to make it possible for maritime reconnaissance aircraft to patrol German Navy U – Boat operating areas of the African coast.  The RAF employed large numbers of civilians form Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Nigeria to maintain these bases.  In 1944 the West African Air Corps (WAAC) was created as an ancillary force, enabling the recruits from these states to be better trained in a variety of skilled ground trades; by 31 December 1944, the WAAC had expanded to nearly 5,000 men.

Side by Side

Nowhere did British soldiers, sailors or airmen fight without men from the Territories, Empire or Commonwealth either by their sides or by forming vital rear action units to support them.

Image: WWII Evacuees – British Children arriving at their destination