In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Army in World War II

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Mobilization
  • Strategy
  • The Interwar Years and the Crisis of 1940
  • The War in Africa
  • The War in the Mediterranean
  • The War in Southeast Asia
  • The Northwest Europe Campaign
  • Combat Effectiveness
  • The Generals
  • The Soldiers’ Experience
  • The British Army as a Social and Cultural Institution
  • Postwar and the 1945 General Election
  • Gender and Identity

Military History British Army in World War II
Jonathan Fennell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0191


There is a very extensive volume of literature on the British army and World War II. This is not solely down to the iconic status of the war in British memory, or its role in shaping British identity. The debates surrounding the causes of great victories and defeats still fire the imagination. The role of the army in the collapse of the British Empire provokes controversy, as indeed does the part played by citizen soldiers on the “road to 1945”—Labour’s unexpected landslide election victory at the conclusion of hostilities. The great generals—Montgomery, Slim, Auchinleck, and others—were remarkable characters, who closely guarded their reputations; their interventions in the decades following the Axis defeat provoked much rancor. A pervasive desire to understand “what it was like” has led to an upsurge of personal memoirs and “experience” books and analyses of how the war, and the institution of the army, impacted individuals in terms of their mental and physical health, their politics and identity. And still there is a debate about whether the army was any good. Did the country mobilize effectively for war? Did wartime leaders get strategy right, in terms of the lead up to and conduct of the war? Did senior officers devise an effective doctrinal and conceptual solution to the challenges of 20th-century industrial warfare? The answers to many of these questions can be found in the sample of literature below. A careful examination of these works will also, undoubtedly, lead to more questions and hopefully spark new histories and perspectives on Britain’s army in World War II.

General Overviews

Much of the literature on the British army and World War II focuses on campaign and battle histories. There are relatively few texts that consider the global nature of the war and its broader social and political contexts and implications. Until recently, Fraser 1999 was the key narrative history of the British Army during the war, while French 2000 set the intellectual agenda in terms of the major themes and debates. Fennell 2019 combines both these approaches and it is now arguably a new base on which further research can be built. Delaney 2018 places the army’s experience in a longer context (it is essential reading), and Allport 2015 offers an excellent and engaging social history of the army. A number of the crucial campaign narratives are also fundamental to our understanding of the British army in World War II (they will be elaborated on below). These important texts include: Barr 2004 (cited under The War in Africa) on the conflict in North Africa, Farrell 2005 on the Malayan campaign and Allen 2000 on Burma (both cited under the War in Southeast Asia), and Buckley 2013 (cited under The Northwest Europe Campaign) on northwest Europe (including the campaign in Normandy). In terms of reference books, Forty 1998 is a superb place to start for those interested in details about the structure and functions of the British army in World War II.

  • Allport, Alan. Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939–1945. London: Yale University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300170757.001.0001

    A well-researched and innovative study of the British army in World War II. Allport’s beautifully written book focuses mainly on the contribution of the ordinary men who fought during the war. It provides an excellent social history of the British army and a helpful overview of some of the key campaigns fought during the war.

  • Delaney, Douglas E. The Imperial Army Project: Britain and the Land Forces of the Dominions and India, 1902–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198704461.001.0001

    An indispensable book for understanding the British army as an institution and fighting machine. Delaney’s transnational approach correctly places the British army in its imperial context and covers the evolution of the Imperial Army Project from the end of the Boer War to the conclusion of World War II—a truly herculean task. An immensely well researched book that will be required reading for decades to come.

  • Fennell, Jonathan. Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139380881

    The first single-volume narrative history of the British and Commonwealth armies in World War II. Fennell’s study provides an in-depth assessment of the mobilization of the British and Commonwealth armies, the conduct of the great campaigns, and the evolution of British and Commonwealth fighting methods and morale. It also explores how those who fought influenced sociopolitical change through their voting choices in key elections during and following the war. It is now arguably a vital source for those interested in understanding the complexities of the war.

  • Forty, George. British Army Handbook, 1939–1945. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1998.

    For the student seeking basic knowledge about the organization of the British Army in World War II, this is a superb place to start.

  • Fraser, David. And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War. London: Cassell, 1999.

    For a long time, Fraser’s book was the sole academic narrative history of the British army in World War II. Although now overtaken by later works, it remains an extremely valuable piece of research, especially when interrogated alongside more thematic studies, such as French 2000. Invaluable for understanding the evolution of Britain’s land campaigns in World War II. Originally published 1983.

  • French, David. Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War against Germany 1919–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    A seminal work, French’s thematic study transformed the historiography of the British army in World War II. His prodigious work in the archives opened the subject up to a new generation of scholars—many a PhD has been built on his footnotes! Although the book focuses solely on the war in the west against Germany and Italy, it remains absolutely indispensable for those studying the subject.

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