The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

13

The Second World War

KEITH JEFFERY

In September 1939 the New Zealand light cruiser HMS Leander called at Fiji to deposit two 4.7-inch guns. In great secrecy they were lifted off the ship and mounted at Suva Battery for the defence of the harbour. The clandestine nature of the operation was understandable for reasons of wartime security, but more importantly, it was essential because the guns themselves were dummies. Not until the end of year were they replaced by genuine ones. 1 Thus did one corner of the British Empire prepare for battle in 1939. Thus perhaps too did the Empire as a whole engage in the war, beginning with a demonstration of unity and strength, but unsupported by actual power until later in the conflict. The British Empire was sustained in large measure by the convenient belief held by non-British people that armed forces could be summoned up at will for immediate deployment in any part of the world. 2 For most of the Empire's history this was indeed a fantasy. It was certainly so in times of peace. Only in war, most clearly during the Second World War, did the Empire approach the otherwise mythical status of a formidable, efficient, and effective power system, prepared to exploit its apparently limitless resources, and actually able to deploy forces throughout the world.

The Second World War marked the greatest and the ultimate 'revival' of the British Empire. 3 In the short term, at least, the impact of war did much to strengthen the Imperial system. The accession of that ardent imperialist, Winston Churchill, to the British premiership in May 1940 meant that the war effort was

____________________
1
R. A. Howlett, The History of the Fiji Military Forces, 1939-1945 (London, 1948), pp. 14-15.
2
Ged Martin, 'Was there a British Empire?', Historical Journal, XV (1972), pp. 562-69.
3
See John Gallagher, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: The Ford Lectures and Other Essays, ed. Anil Seal (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 139-41. Other accounts of the Empire in the Second World War on which I have drawn are: Nicholas Mansergh, Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of Wartime Co-operation and Post-War Change, 1939-1952 (London, 1958) and Glen St. J. Barclay, The Empire is Marching: A Study of the Military Effort of the British Empire, 1800-1945 (London, 1976), pp. 142-219. The best general sources for the war are: Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, and John Pritchard, Total War: The Causes and Courses of the Second World War, 2nd edn., 2 vols. (Harmondsworth, 1989); Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge, 1994); and I. C. B. Dear, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Second World War (Oxford, 1995).

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