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The british Empire at war

By Jeffro

In addition to the substantial forces created in the United Kingdom, the Dominions and Colonies of the British Empire supported these with Combat Forces, Military Bases & Resources.

Many of these efforts are little known as they often took place in out of the way theatres and were overwhelmed in Numbers by the major fighting fronts.

The following is a snapshot of the efforts of these vital components of the Allied effort in WW2. I n addition, there were substantial numbers of Empire aircrew in the RAF (Short Term Commissions), Naval crews and serving in the British & Indian Armies.

The Army units fought, generally, as National Units, though often within Multi National Corps & Armies under British Command in Europe & SE Asia and American command in the S W Pacific.

Naval Units were similarly to fight with Allied Task Forces.

The Air Units were a different case, although all Nations created National Units, it was regularly found within RAF Europe that the best units and aircrews consisted of members form a mixture of Nations. The foibles and values from each Country balanced each other out and therefore produced the best overall result. Sadly, politics saw the creation of specific Canadian, Australian etc Squadrons to the detriment of all.


At the outbreak of war in Sept 1939, the Canadian Armed Forces (Like most of the Empire, consisted of a small number of regulars with outmoded weapons and a larger "Militia" of part time soldiers who were even worse equipped.

The Royal Canadian Navy had only 1,990 Officers & Ratings & 1,700 Reservists manning 4 relatively modern Destroyers, 2 Older Destroyers and 4 Minesweepers.

The Army had a strength of 4,261 Officers and Men armed with 4 Modern AA Guns, 5 Mortars, 82 Vickers MGs, 10 Bren LMGs, and 2 Light Tanks and a further 51,000 served in the Militia.

The Royal Canadian Air Force numbered 298 Officers & 2,750 Airmen with 270 aircraft of 23 types, though only 37 could be considered modern types.

From these beginnings, a major Army, Navy & Air Force were created which had a major involvement in many Theatres and Battles in the War.

The RCN main effort was in the Battle of the Atlantic, providing escorts of Destroyers and Corvettes to the Convoys in the Western Atlantic. Other units served at Normandy and Armed Merchant Cruisers were active in the Pacific & Mediterranean. By the end of hostilities it manned 2 Aircraft Carriers (not the Air Groups), 2 Heavy Cruisers and a further 360 odd smaller craft and enlisted over 105,000 men & women.

The Canadian Army was a volunteer force until 1944, at the outbreak of war over 55,000 men were signed up and allowed the first units of 1 Canadian Infantry Division to leave for England. This unit was sent to France in late May/June 1940 in a vain attempt to prop up the French Army but to no avail. It was successfully evacuated and returned to England. During the Invasion fears of June-Sept 1940, this unit was also one of the main counter attacking forces available to the British.

To aid in the defence of Hong Kong, Brigade HQ and 2 battalions were sent to assist the British Forces already in place, these men fought against the Japanese until forced to surrender on 25 December 1941 with the loss of 40% of their strength killed or wounded and a further 268 deaths while POW.

In August 1942, 2 Canadian Infantry Division was used as the main force for the landing at Dieppe, of the 4,963 men involved, 656 died and 1,946 became POW. Most of those who returned were unable to be landed.

The force in Europe stabilised at 3 Infantry Divisions (1,2,3), 2 Armoured Divisions (4 & 5) and an Independent Armoured Bde.

These units fought in Sicily, Italy & NW Europe and 3 Canadian Infantry Div landed on DDay.

After the outbreak of war in the Pacific, 3 Infantry Divisions were created to defend the Pacific coast and parts of Alaska.

A major problem during the war evolved around the French/Canadians & Conscription, this caused much trouble to the Government though without major effect. A number of French/Canadian units were amongst the better-performed units in battle.
The RCAF ended with 48 Squadrons and also had tens of thousands of men serving in other units of the RAF. 401 Sqn (1 RCAF Sqn) was trained in time for service in the Battle of Britain but the main effort of the RCAF was with Bomber Command. 6 Group was created with 8 Squadrons on 1 January 1943 and once they were re-equipped with Halifax & Lancaster aircraft continually improved in its results. Other Canadian squadrons served with Coastal Command, in the Western Desert and on ASW patrol from Eastern Canada.

Overall, Canada suffered 42,042 dead, 54,414 wounded and 8,995 POW.

Canada was also of great economic value to the Empire, in addition to its Natural & Agricultural wealth it produced 345 Merchant Ships, 120+ Corvettes, 14,700 Aircraft (Lancaster, Hurricane, Mosquito), 707,000 Military vehicles and 45,710 armoured vehicles and was a conduit for US supplies before Dec 41 and the base for the American volunteers for the RAF.


New Zealand had a small population but was an important provider of men and supplies.

The Regular Army was non-existent pre war, but a solid Militia existed which provided a solid core for the volunteer force, which was created. The New Zealand Division was formed and sent to Palestine to complete its equipment and training. (It was originally to go to England, but lack of training space saw only part sent to the UK and the balance to the Mid East).

It formed part of I ANZAC Corps sent to Greece where it fell back and was evacuated to Crete, here it again fought well but was again forced to retreat and many of its men evacuated to Egypt. In November 1941 it took part in Operation Crusader and fought hard against the DAK and finally was able to link up with the Tobruk Garrison. These campaigns had cost the Division over 10,000 casualties.

The Division was sent to Syria for a rest but was returned to the Desert to help in blocking Rommel's push to Cairo, it was nearly captured at Minqar Qaim (near Mersa Matruh) but withdrew in time to the Alamein Line. At Alamein it was poorly served by British Generals and Armoured units which culminated in the loss of one of the Infantry Brigades when Tank units could not provide the support promised.

From this point it was decided to re-equip one of the Brigades as an Armoured Brigade, for the 2nd Battle of Alamein the British 9th Armoured Brigade was attached and together they were to perform part of the Pursuit Group. The Division was heavily involved in chasing Rommel back to Tripoli and provided the core of the force outflanking the Mareth position.

2 NZ Division, had a rest and then joined the 8th Army in Italy, it fought at Monte Cassino and ended the war in Trieste.

The NZ Army relieved some British units in the Pacific (A Brigade to Fiji and smaller forces to other Islands) These expanded to a full Division and garrisoned New Caledonia before making landing on Islands in the Solomon's & Bouganville area.

The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy had strength of 2 Light Cruisers (Leander & Achilles) 2 escort Vessels and 1 minesweeping trawler. Achilles saw action at The River Plate and after becoming the Royal New Zealand Navy in Sept 41 grew to 2 Light Cruisers, 2 Corvettes, 16 Minesweepers, 12 ASW Patrol boats and over 100 harbour defence craft.

The main role of the Royal New Zealand Air Force was in providing trained aircrew for use in RAF squadrons, including 75 Sqn (Bomber Command) and a fighter Sqn. After the outbreak in the Pacific it raised a number of Squadrons and armed with US aircraft (Corsair, Dauntless, and Ventura) provided support in the Solomons, Bouganville, Rabaul areas.

New Zealand war casualties were 11,671 Killed and another 25,000 wounded or POW.


The Union of South Africa was deeply divided as to whether they should be involved in the war, it was only by a small margin that they finally decided to declare ware on 6 September 1939 and its contribution was limited when compared to other Dominions.

South Africa had a wealth of Natural Resources, Gold Diamonds, Coal & Iron Ore which were vital to the Empire war effort and was vitally placed to control the access from the Atlantic to Indian Oceans.

The South African Army grew from 5,385 men to a force of 132,194 Whites & 123,131 Blacks. It provided 2 Infantry Divisions for the campaigns in East Africa & Western Desert where 1 Sth African Division suffered heavy losses during Crusader in Nov 1941 and the 2 Sth African Division was captured at Tobruk in June 1942. 1 SA Div fought at Alamein for 4 months and the 7 Motorised Bde landed in Southern Madagascar.
For the campaign in Italy, the Infantry forces reorganised as 6th Sth African Armoured Division and it fought with both 5th US Army & 8th British Army in the push past Rome to the Po Valley.

The South African Air Force grew from having 6 Aircraft to a force of 28 Squadrons which saw service in East Africa, Madagascar, Western Desert & Italy

At Sea, the Sth African Naval Service, after changing names a number of times became the South African naval Force of 78 vessels.

In total 334,224 Sth Africans volunteered for Service and suffered nearly 9,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and more than 14,000 taken POW.


Yes it was part of the Empire, but remained steadfastly neutral for the war despite having Dublin bombed by the Luftwaffe

The Republic was a drain on British food resources as everything had to be imported vis England and then transported across the Irish Sea.

However, 124,500 men & 58,000 women left for Northern Ireland & England and of these 38,544 volunteered for the British Army (Including 7,000 deserters from the Irish Army) plus a large number of men already residing in the UK.


A British Colony, now part of Canada, Newfoundland provided Air & Naval bases, some of which were traded to the USA in the Destroyers for Bases deal.


The world's greatest exporter of teak and substantial supplies of Oil, Rubber & Tungsten had only become separated from India in 1937.

At the time of the Japanese attack 27,000 troops garrisoned Burma, 15,000 were indigenous Burmese plus units from Britain & India. Poorly trained, equipped and motivated, they fell back before the Japanese and many made the trek back to India. Some remained committed to the British cause and stayed in their local areas where they raised a substantial "guerilla" force in 1943-45.
Small number of Burmese (including British residents of Burma) provided interpreter and scout forces to Wingate & Slims forces.

The Japanese formed the Burma Independence Army which served in Burma but was mostly ineffective, in May 1945 Aung Sang defected this force back over to the Allies and he later formed Burma's first post war government.


The collective name for the grouping of States on the Malay Peninsula, Malay provided 38% of the world Rubber and 58% of the world Tin. It had a population of approx 5.5 mill of whom only 2.3 mill were indigenous Malays. There were over 2.4 mill Chinese, .75 mill Indians with the remaining numbers from all Nation.

Only small numbers of British ex-pats provided a small Army & Air Force, the majority of the 3 Divisions in place in December were from India & Australia.

During the war, the Chinese population suffered under the Japanese and formed Guerilla groups which took action against the occupying troops.

At the Japanese surrender, the British reoccupied Malaya by Amphibious landing as this had been planned for execution and was more efficient to continue with the operation (ZIPPER)


Of the US coast was part of the Destroyers for Bases deal and therefore became a major US Airbase.

Some of its men from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps served in Europe in a British Regiment and the Bermuda Militia Infantry was part of the Caribbean Regiment.


A collection of British Colonies of nearly 3 million peoples, provided a number of bases to British & US Forces (and controlled eastern approaches to the Panama Canal.

A number of labour units were sent to the UK but were poorly treated and returned home. Many Jamaicans joined the Royal Engineers and the Caribbean Rgt. About 300 served as aircrew in the RAF and 5,500 on ground duties.


The Colonies of Southern & Northern Rhodesia provided Copper, Zinc, vanadium, Cobalt, Mica, Lead, Gold, Chrome & Coal for the war effort.

The major input to the fighting was in being a base for the Empire Air Training Scheme which trained 3,891 Aircrew for the RAF. 237 Sqn RAF was manned by Southern Rhodesia's and an Armoured Car Rgt saw service in Italy.


The colonies of Kenya, Zanzibar & Tankanyika provided 2 Divisions (1, 2 East African) for service in the East Africa campaign and on Madagascar. These units were disbanded or absorbed into 11 (East African) Division which fought in the Burma theatre. Another 100,000 East African served in the services during WW2.

Mombassa, Kenya also provided a base for the RN's Eastern Fleet in April 1942.


Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast
Units from West Africa helped form 1 & 2 East African Divisions in 1940, these units then formed 81 & 82 West African Divisions which fought in Burma (and were part of the Chindits) and suffered about 2,000 casualties including 494 dead.

Substantial bases were built on the Atlantic coast and provided airfields for ASW operations and the Takoradi base was central to the success of the Ait Route across to Egypt.


At the outbreak of WW2, India was the only one of the Dominions and Colonies to have a substantial Armed Force, Over 205,000 Indians, 63,469 British & 83,706 troops from Princely States filled out a force which included 113 Infantry battalions. This Army was well trained and motivated but was armed and trained to fight on India's frontiers, particularly in the Mountainous NW Frontier area. The Royal Indian Air Force consisted of 1,638 men, but had no complete squadrons and the Royal Indian Navy had 1,708 men manning 8 small coastal vessels.

On the outbreak of war, plans were put in place to increase the size of the Army and a number of Units were sent to the Middle East where the 4th Division provided a half of Wavell's force for Operation Compass. From these beginnings the Indian Army provided Units for 7 different theatres, where, as long as well trained and led, they gave an excellent service for the Empire. The British also began a process of Indianization. Originally one British Battalion was part of each Brigade and the only Indian Artillery were a small number of Mountain Batteries. By the end of the war, many Brigades had no British troops, Indian Officers were advancing through Command positions and the RIAF & RIN has similar changes.

Areas of Service

EGYPT, LIBYA 4,5 & 10 Divisions, 3 Indian Motor Bde
EAST AFRICA 4 & 5 Divisions
SYRIA 4 Division
ITALY & GREECE (43-45) 4,8 & 10 Divisions, 43 Indian Motor Bde
IRAQ_PERSIA 6,8 & 10 Divisions, 31 Armoured Division
MALAYA 9 & 11 Divisions
BURMA 5,7,14,17,19,20,23,25,26 & 39 Divisions 50,254 & 255 Arm Bdes,
50 Para Bde
The Air Force ended with 9 Squadrons and the Navy had about 34 Fighting vessels and a force of about 40 landing craft.

Unlike the rest of the Empire, India was a drain on the resources of the Empire, the continual need to feed a population of approx 320 million was beyond the ability of the Indian Agriculture system, the Bengal famine in 1943 saw the deaths of over 3 million civilians.


Like the rest of the Empire, Australia was poorly equipped for the outbreak of modern war, but like the others, received such an influx of volunteers that it was able to supply a substantial force of Infantry Airmen & Naval forces within an amazingly short time.

Over 82,000 men made up the Australian Army in 1939, though only 2,000 were part of the Permanent Army and the remainder of part time Militia. This Militia force provided an excellent core of Officers and men which were to ease the creation of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force.

The Royal Australian Air Force had 164 Aircraft the most modern the Avro Anson organised in 12 Squadrons.

The Royal Australian Navy was the best equipped with 2 x 8" Cruisers (Australia & Canberra), 4 x 6" Light Cruisers (Adelaide, Hobart, Perth & Sydney), 5 old Destroyers and 2 sloops
Australian troops left for the Middle East, though with the threat to England, a Brigade (another created in England) was diverted there, and with the Canadians & New Zealanders were the main Counter Attack forces.

The Aussies, with their distinctive Slouch Hats, proved as capable as their predecessors of WW1 and were used in many theatres of war. After the Japanese attacks, the Australian Govt requested the return of their troops and the 7th Division was returned, the 6th Division did a short stint in the defence of Ceylon and the 9th fought in the 2nd Battle of Alamein before returning. These were aided by forces of the Militia in first defending New Guinea, then counter attacking through Gona-Buna, Wau, Sananada, Lae & the Markham Valley. In the final months of the war the 7th & 9th Divisions landed on the island of Borneo at Tarakan, Balikpapan & Labuan as well as garrisoning Bouganville, New Britain and the Wewak area.

Total enlistments were 691,400 men and 35,800 women with 18,713 killed (Including while POW), 22,116 wounded(cases) and 20,746 POW(Mostly Greece, Crete , Singapore & Indonesia)

Areas of Service (Main Units)

6th Division Bardia, Capture of Tobruk, Bengazi, Greece, Crete (some units) New Guinea
7th Division 18 Bde at Tobruk, Syria, Cyprus, New Guinea, Borneo
8th Division Malaya, Singapore, Changi (Less 23 Bde)
9th Division Defense of Tobruk, Alamein, New Guinea, Borneo
23 Bde (8 Div) At Battalion strength Timer, Amboyna & Rabaul in late 1941

3rd, 5th & 11th Divisions fought in New Guinea, New Britain & Bouganville, Brigades were swapped between the HQ's at various times

1 Armoured Division (AIF), 2 & 3 Armoured Divisions (Militia) These unites evolved from Motor Bdes and in 1943-44 evolved again to Armoured Bdes

1,2,4,10,11 & 12 Infantry Divisions (Militia)

The RAAF had its 10 Squadron in England in Sept 1939 taking delivery of Sunderland Flying Boats, these were immediately made available to the RAF and 3 Sqn RAAF went to the Western Desert where it was originally armed with Gloster Gauntlet & Gladiator Biplanes.
For the European Theatre, the main Australian efforts came via the Empire Air Training Scheme which trained thousands of Australian Aircrew which saw the creation of a number of Fighter, Bomber & ASW Squadrons for the RAF. Australian aircrew also made up a large percentage of aircrew in the "Normal" RAF squadrons

In the Pacific, RAAF units were a major part of the forces in Malaya with Buffalo & Hudsons, and over 50 Squadrons served throughout the S W Pacific Area.

Over 189,000 men & 27,000 women enlisted for the RAAF & WRAAF. Casualties were 6,460 killed, 882 wounded & 1,255 POW

The RAN served in all theatre in which the RN was involved, HMAS Australia bombarded Dakar, HMAS Sydney sank the Italian CA Bartolomeo Colleoni and DD Espero, its Destroyers helped with the "ScrapIron Flotilla"(Another Haw-Hawism), HMAS Vampire rescued survivors of Force Z off Malaya. Their service was not without losses, Waterhen(DD) was sunk off Tobruk, Vampire near Ceylon with HMS Hermes, Sydney was sunk, with all hands, off the West Australian coast by Kormoran, Canberra at Savo Island(by USN Torpedos!) and Hobart in the Solomons in July 43. HMAS Australia was damaged by one of the first of the Kamikaze attacks.

45,800 men & 3,100 served in the RAN 1,900 dead, 579 wounded & 263 POW.

Australia was able to provide a substantial amount of resources for the war effort, and developed it Industry base for war Materiel.

The Aircraft Industry produced around 3,000 aircraft, including Beaufort, Beaufighter, Boomerang, Mosquito and in mid 45, Mustang Fighter-bombers. The Munitions Factories, in Sept 43 were producing 30 x 25pdr Gun-Hows, 31 x 6pdr AT, 4 x 3.7"AA 1500 Owen SMG, 1600 Austen SMG, 16,000 .303 Rifles, 273,000 rounds of 25pdr ammo, 20.5mill rounds of .303 & 5.9mill of 9mm(for SMG)

The Dockyards had produced Tribal class DD's and a large number of Corvette & Minelayer/sweeper type vessels.


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