Should Britain be a bit more grateful to the USA that they are currently speaking English rather than German? Or is the view of the USA as the saviour of Britain in WW2 totally overblown?
The USA’s Uncle Sam and Britain’s John Bull have a frank exchange of views…
The USA “saved our asses” did they? The USA didn’t enter the war to save Britain, they were dragged in by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and by Germany and Italy’s declaration of war on them in December 1941. In 1940 Britain and its Commonwealth allies stood alone against the world dominance of Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in Asia. Even Russia was neutral, having agreed a 10-year non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939 (an agreement which secretly carved up Eastern Europe between them).
Listen buddy, while the American public were reluctant to send their young men off to another European bloodbath, the US rendered every support short of war to Britain from 1939 to 1941. The Neutrality Patrol saw US warships assisting British Navy vessels in convoying merchant shipping across the Atlantic. This placed US sailors at great risk (remember, the destroyer USS Reuben James was sunk by a German U-Boat in October 1941). The Neutrality Patrol clearly favored Britain – it shadowed German ships in neutral waters and communicated their location back without encryption so they could be intercepted by British ships.
I’ll grant you, American servicemen were far braver than their political leaders. The US Ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940, one Joseph Kennedy, was no friend of the British. Even in late 1940 he was trying to arrange a personal meeting with Hitler to keep the USA out of the war and argued against giving any assistance to Britain. As far as he was concerned, we were finished.
And when the American public heard what Joe Kennedy had to say, there was a national outcry and HE was finished. FDR sent over a more trusted advisor, ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, who was convinced Britain would survive and should be supported in every possible way. And we did. Britain was running short of arms and supplies, we provided them. We pulled your butts out of a real fix by giving you aid.
Hang on, you didn’t ‘give’ us anything. We had to pay for it all, up front, in gold. And when the gold began to run out, it was in foreign currency and securities; then through the forced liquidation of British assets in North America at knock-down prices; then the surrender of our patents and royalties for our inventions, such as radar and jet engines; finally it was territory. When old Joe Kennedy advised that a British surrender was “inevitable”, FDR wanted British bases in the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Newfoundland. Churchill handed those over in exchange for obsolescent small arms and 50 mothballed destroyers – and FDR was loathe even to give us these.
Well, he wasn’t stupid. If Britain were defeated, FDR didn’t want its colonial islands so close to American shores falling into German hands – Churchill himself warned him against that. In any case, Britain couldn’t afford to waste resources defending them. Bermuda and Newfoundland in particular were vital to trans-Atlantic shipping. The deal allowed you to hand their defence over to the US. We built strategic facilities on them at our expense, and you used them in the Battle of the Atlantic.
You got by far the better deal, and you knew we had no option but to take it. The 50 destroyers we got in return were leftovers from World War 1 and hadn’t been maintained properly. Churchill must have been biting his tongue when he told FDR: “We have so far only been able to bring a few of your fifty destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally develop when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.”
FDR was taking a risk supplying you with anything at all. It was obvious to the Axis powers that the US was acting as anything but neutral. Also, FDR had to fight the 1940 Presidential election at a time when his opponents were casting him as a war-monger and the voting public didn’t want to get involved in another European war. When FDR was voted back in, he came up with Lend-Lease as a way of bypassing the Neutrality Acts to supply you with munitions, aircraft, food, vehicles and ships. Lend-Lease helped turn the tide in your favor.
The tide had already turned in our favour, mate! The RAF had already defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain with no help from the US Air Force – although we did get help from some of your lads on the Eagle Squadrons who shamed your government by having nothing to do with neutrality. The Germans couldn’t get air superiority over Britain so they abandoned any attempt to invade. RAF bombers took the fight to the heart of Germany instead. Britain also had the world’s largest Navy at the time and, despite the deadly U-boat threat, was dominant in the Atlantic – we were the only barrier between you and immediate danger too. When the chips were really down in 1940, we saved our own ‘asses’ – and bought you time to save yours too.
The RAF fought hard in 1940, but the Battle of Britain was a close run thing. Although the invasion of Britain was halted, Germany may well have regrouped and attempted another attack. You weren’t out of danger by any means. German air defences were too well-organised and forced the RAF to bomb at night. It was common for your bombers, relying on dead reckoning navigation, to miss entire cities – little actual damage was caused to German infrastructure and they rapidly replaced any lost production. At sea, German U-boat crews referred to 1940 as “the Happy Time” – they sank 2.4 million tons of merchant shipping in the Atlantic with an average of just 21 U-boats at sea at any one time. By 1941 Germany was the second biggest industrial powerhouse in the world; you needed the backing of the biggest – the USA.
Lend-Lease provided provided little support to us in 1941. By the time statement of requirements had been written, contracts drawn up, goods produced and delivered, Hitler had turned his attention from Britain and was up to his neck in the Soviet Union. Britain’s output was soaring, mainly thanks to the mobilization of our women on war work, and we were self-sufficient in front line equipment like tanks and fighter aircraft. We also had the unquestioned support of our Empire, especially Canada, for men and material.
Come on! By 1943 about a quarter of all your munitions came through Lend-Lease. A quarter of the shipments to Britain were aircraft, followed by land vehicles, ships and, importantly, food. Apart from Canada, your Empire wasn’t geared for war production and wasn’t able to export mass supplies to you. You imported 70% of your food to feed your 50 million people before the war, and this now had to be severely rationed don’t forget.
Don’t remind me – I can still taste the powdered egg. But we didn’t starve. In fact, our health improved. In 1939 boffins from Cambridge University tested whether the UK could survive with only domestic food production if U-boats ended all imports. They performed intensive outdoor exercise on what you would consider ‘starvation rations’ and the only negative side effect was a “remarkable” increase in flatulence from the high amount of starch in the diet! American food imports meant that our wartime diet was never as severe as in the Cambridge study, but rationing improved the health of British people; infant mortality declined and life expectancy rose (except for those being killed by German bombs).
OK, you were coping – but how long could you have maintained that without our intervention in the war? You were no position to single-handedly take back Western Europe from Germany and, without our extensive aid to the Soviet Union, the Red Army could have collapsed, leaving you wide open to a Third Reich which practically covered the whole continent. The USSR was highly dependent on rail transportation, but the war practically shut down their rail production – we supplied thousands of locomotives and railcars under Lend-Lease, as well as 20% of their military aircraft. We also provided hundreds of thousands of trucks – in fact by 1945 nearly two-thirds of their truck strength was US-built. American shipments of canned rations and clothing were just as critical.
The collapse of Soviet resistance was predicted many times after Hitler invaded in 1941, not least when German troops were poised outside both Leningrad and Moscow. But by the end of the year they were rolled back by the Red Army, with Soviet blood and largely with Soviet weapons. US aid was important from 1943 on, as quantities dramatically increased, but it was far too little and late to make a difference in the decisive battles of 1941–1942. In fact, it was British aid in late 1941 and early 1942 which played a far more significant part in the revival of Soviet fortunes, particularly tanks and aircraft. British-supplied tanks made up around a third of the entire heavy and medium tank strength of Soviet forces before Moscow at the beginning of December 1941.
Look, in December 1941 the US was gearing up to fight a war across two oceans and three continents. It was building and equipping a military that was all but nonexistent before the war began. The mobilization effort was greater than anything attempted in world history – but we achieved it. By the end of 1943 there were over a million American soldiers and airmen stationed in Britain – you were safe. Despite our ‘late arrival’ as you see it, the USAAF dropped 1.5 million tons of bombs in the European theatre, compared to the RAF’s 1.3 million. And without America, there would have been no D-Day.
OK, if you’re going to start totting up, the main threat in the European theatre was Germany itself – RAF Bomber Command dropped 965,000 tons of bombs on the German heartlands, while the US 8th Air Force dropped 623,000 tons of bombs. And, however ‘Saving Private Ryan’ might have portrayed it, the Normandy Landings were not purely an American affair. There 5 invasion beaches on D-Day – 2 American, 2 British and 1 Canadian. The Americans landed around 73,000 troops, the British and Canadians around 83,000. For Operation Neptune, the naval part of the D-Day invasion, the Royal Navy provided 58% of the personnel, 80% of the combat vessels and 85% of the major landing vessels.
That’s because the bulk of the US Navy was fighting the Japs in the Pacific! And if you don’t like American war films, make some films of your own! The fact remains, the greatest amphibious landing in the history of warfare and would not have been possible without the weapons, munitions, supplies and men of the United States – nor would the subsequent invasion of western Europe, and nor would the achievement of air superiority over the whole of Europe.
OK, the war would have been much harder and longer without the US in it, but we both know who really defeated the Germans militarily – the Soviet Union. It was the battles on the Eastern Front which constituted the largest military confrontation in history and which ultimately determined the outcome of the war. They involved more land combat than all other WW2 theatres combined, and accounted for 80% of German military deaths. If anyone could claim to have ‘saved our asses’, albeit with our combined help, it was the Soviet Union.
But, a longer war in Europe without US involvement could have meant either Hitler getting the A-bomb first and dominating what was left of Europe, or Stalin getting it first and dominating what was left of Europe. Whichever scenario had played out, without American intervention, you would have been screwed.
WE might have got the A-bomb first. The key breakthrough on the critical mass of uranium-235 was made in Britain in 1939. The British atomic bomb project was formed in 1940 and shared its findings with key American physicists in August 1941 – FDR approved the US atomic program a couple of months later.
You tried and failed to develop your own A-bomb project during the war. In fact, Britain rebuffed attempts by the US to strengthen cooperation between the two projects because you didn’t want to share your technological lead and help the US develop its own atomic bomb. Churchill ignored an offer by Roosevelt to pay for all research and development in an Anglo-American project. However, Britain didn’t have the manpower or resources to capitalise on its early start, and your project soon fell behind ours. By the time you realised it was in your best interests to co-operate, you had to come on board as a junior rather than equal partner in the Manhattan Project.
We couldn’t capitalise because the majority of our resources were diverted into fighting the war! If we had stayed out of it from 1939 like you, we could have developed the A-bomb. We could also have avoided death and destruction in our towns and cities, and grown rich by supplying the Germans and the Russians as they slaughtered each other (didn’t Ford and General Motors simultaneously produce for both Britain and Germany?). We could have avoided virtually bankrupting ourselves, rationing our population’s food until 1954, and paying off war debts to you until 2006. We could even have retained our Empire – Hitler had no designs on that (even if the Japanese did).
Are we getting to the nub of your ingratitude towards the US, John Bull? The end of the British Empire? You initially did try to stay out of it by appeasing Hitler, but your sense of prestige couldn’t allow German domination in Europe. Our isolationism suited you just fine before the war. You actively encouraged it – no USA poking its nose into a world dominated by Great Britain. But when you needed and received our help, you couldn’t forgive us for the humiliation of becoming a junior partner to a former colony. Your Empire was doomed anyway. Churchill’s wartime rhetoric about freedom and liberty must have sounded hollow to those colonies seeking self-determination across the British Empire. The world had moved on, and you couldn’t have hoped to maintain an imperial presence right across it.
I think we’re getting to your nub too, Uncle Sam – the United States’ antipathy to the British Empire, which stemmed from way, way before WW2. The war presented you with an opportunity to loot Great Britain of every available liquid asset, then afterwards dismantle our Empire and sweep away any competition for trade and capital. You even abruptly ended Lend-Lease while we were helping to feed and rebuild half of Europe. Your ‘economic assistance’ would have beggared Britain whether we had won or lost the war. All our lads – British and American – fought side by side with great courage and shed precious blood together as allies, but your government operated from a position of self-interest as it always has done. Which is fair enough – but you didn’t ‘save our asses’.
The troops did fight together courageously as allies and too many didn’t come home. But without the USA, the alternatives would have been a whole lot worse. For all of us.