The British 8th Army Wasn’t Entirely British

British 8th Army Defeated the German Afrika Korps in the Second Battle of El Alemein and became famous for this and subsequent victories.

 

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Two soldiers belonging to the Commonwealth and Allied forces aim at a German soldier surrendering atop his tank 25 October 1942 as a sandstorm clouds the battlefield at El Alamein (AFP)

 

The British 8th Army deployed in North African (and subsequently Sicily and Italy), defeated the Germans in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October – 11 November 1942).

This was the first significant land battle won by British forces in World War Two. So momentous was this victory that for the first time since the war had begun, church bells rang throughout the UK on the order of Prime Minister Churchill. Previous to this victory, church bells were only to be rung to signal that Great Britain was being invaded by the Germans.

 

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A British Bren gun is in action somewhere south of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. The weapon was a light machine gun developed in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the 1920s and named for that city.

 

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General the Hon Sir Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront with Major General Harding from an open car.

While usually associated with the ego-maniacal narcissist General Bernard Montgomery, the most over rated General in all of World War Two, British 8th Army and Montgomery came under the overall command of General Sir Harold Alexander (General Alex to his men) who commanded all British, Commonwealth and Imperial Forces in critical and vast Middle Eastern theatre. He set the parameters for Montgomery’s attack at El Alemein and reviewed all of Montgomery’s plans in detail. Alex and his staff made numerous suggestions and orders to Montgomery and his staff in the weeks before the battle.

Subsequently, he became Commander in Chief of all Allied Forces: ground, sea and air, which included the US 5th Army under General Mark Clark, in the Mediterranean.

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A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

 

This was the standard British Army artillery piece in World War Two. The caliber was 3.45 inches. (This is a measurement of the internal diameter of the barrel). The piece was designed to fire 25 lb shells hence the name.

 

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Australian troops advancing at El Alamein

(photo courtesy Australian Broadcasting Company)

Despite the name, only 1/4 of the British 8th Army was comprised of actual British troops. Demonstrating the vast reach of Britain’s global empire, the remainder were Commonwealth and Imperial troops from Dominions and colonies including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, British India (which included all of present day Pakistan, Bangladesh and India), Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Cyprus, Gambia, the Gold Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Palestine, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanganyika, and Uganda.

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British Imperial troops from East Africa training in Burma during the reconquest of that colony from the Japanese in 1944 and 1945. 

 

While we think of Great Britain as an island with 80 million people off the coast of Western Europe, at the beginning of World War Two the British Empire was the only “super power” in the world. The U.S. wasn’t even in contention.

In 1939, the British ruled approximately 1/4 of the surface of the earth and 1/4 of the world’s population which makes it the largest empire in Western history.  During World War Two, the British Empire played a critical role in ultimate victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In fact, the British could not have prosecuted the war without the massive numbers of men, the immense amounts of money given or loaned to Great Britain, and the natural resources they mobilized from their Empire. In 1942, Britain was running out of funds to continue their massive purchases of Canadian food, equipment, industrial machinery and raw materials. Such purchases had created a boom in the Canadian economy. So this would continue, the Canadian government simply gave the British one billion pounds. Australia made similar gifts.

 

Organized and administered by the Colonial Service and the British military, a vast coordination of effort in industrial, minerals and food production took place throughout the Empire. Entities such as the Middle East Supply Center, regulated imports and exports from that area so that the huge British Empire forces and 100 million plus civilian population of the area had enough food, for example.

 

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4th Indian Division in action, Tunisia, April 1943

 

 

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28 September 1941. Personnel from the King’s African Rifles (KAR) collect weapons surrendered by Italian forces at Wolchefit Pass, Ethiopia, following the end of the East African Campaign.

 

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Soldiers of the King’s African Rifles training in the Kenyan bush 1944

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Troops of Kings African Rifles manning a bofors anti-aircraft gun World War Two.

 

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Kenya Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. British and African anti-aircraft gunners in a Kenya minesweeper in World War Two.

 

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother accompanied by the guard commander Major R. Aikenhead, inspects a guard of honor of the Second Battalion the King’s African rifles at the great Indaba in the Matotos Hills, near Bullawayo, Rhodesia on July 8, 1957. Behind the Queen Mother is her private secretary, Lt-Col. Gilliatt. The Queen Mother wears a jacket and dress of white lace. Her white hat is trimmed with white and sapphire blue osprey feathers. (AP Photo)
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother accompanied by the guard commander Major R. Aikenhead, inspects a guard of honor of the Second Battalion the King’s African rifles at the great Indaba in the Matotos Hills, near Bullawayo, Rhodesia on July 8, 1957. Behind the Queen Mother is her private secretary, Lt-Col. Gilliatt. The Queen Mother wears a jacket and dress of white lace. Her white hat is trimmed with white and sapphire blue osprey feathers. (AP Photo)

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/