In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dominion Armies in World War II

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Transnational Military Histories

Military History Dominion Armies in World War II
Douglas E. Delaney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0202


In September 1939, a committee of the British War Cabinet estimated that the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa could raise fourteen divisions of the fifty-five-division field force it hoped the British Commonwealth would assemble for the war against Germany and the other Axis powers. The British got what they were looking for, and then some. The Canadians raised three infantry divisions, two armored divisions, and two independent armored brigades. They also raised another three divisions for home defense, one of which was designated for the invasion of Japan when the war in the Far East ended in August 1945. The Australians generated four infantry divisions and one armored division for the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), plus another two armored cavalry divisions and eight infantry divisions (not all of which were fully manned) for the militia and home defense. Two of those militia infantry divisions fought in the New Guinea campaign. The 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF) comprised one infantry division (later converted to an armored division), which fought in the Mediterranean, and a two-brigade infantry division that deployed to the Pacific theater, where it worked under American command until its disbandment in October 1944. The South Africans raised two expeditionary infantry divisions, one of which fought in East Africa and the Western Desert until converted to an armored division and deployed to Italy in 1943. The other division fought in the Western Desert from mid-1941 until its capture at Tobruk in June 1942. The first serious studies of the dominion armies in World War II were the official histories, commissioned by the respective governments to record what their soldiers had done and accomplished. The works remain solid records of what happened, and, cost and profit being less of a concern for government publication projects than they are for independent presses, the official histories are almost invariably better illustrated with clear maps and well-chosen photographs than the histories that followed. A generation of dominion historians since the 1970s has continued to explore their nations’ wartime histories, challenge long-held assumptions, and fill in historical gaps left by the official histories, most along purely national lines. Combined with the official histories, these new national histories have formed a solid foundation for a growing number of transnational examinations of the British Commonwealth armies since the mid-2000s.

Reference Works

There are a number of useful works that ought to be within reach of anyone doing research on the armies of dominions during World War II. Bellis 1999 and Forty 1998 are excellent references for orders of battle, organizations, weaponry, and equipment, while Granatstein and Oliver 2011; Grey, et al. 2008; and McGibbon 2000 are good sources for the national military histories of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, respectively.

  • Bellis, Malcom A. Commonwealth Divisions, 1939–1945. Crewe, UK: Malcolm A. Bellis, 1999.

    A handy booklet (77 pp.) that presents orders of battle and thumbnail histories (formation dates, roles, and operations) for British, Indian, dominion, colonial, and exiled-ally divisions of World War II. Indexed.

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

    Invaluable source that details divisional orders of battle, weaponry, equipment, training, and war establishments for British Army fighting formations and services. Useful for anyone interested in how dominion brigades, divisions, and armies were organized, armed, equipped, trained, and manned because, with only a few exceptions, they were all assembled in the same way. No such handbook exists for any of the dominion armies.

  • Granatstein, J. L., and Dean F. Oliver. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A 514-page reference source by two leading authorities in Canadian military history. Contains well-chosen entries that are clear, concise, and beautifully illustrated. Unfortunately, the entries are not cross-referenced. No index.

  • Grey, Jeffrey, Peter Dennis, Ewan Morris, Robin Prior, and Jean Bou. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Now in its second edition, this 625-page reference work, coauthored by five leading historians of Australia’s military experience, including the late Jeffery Grey, has few illustrations but excellent maps. All the entries are easy-to-read and cross-reference (in bold). Indexed.

  • McGibbon, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    At 653 pages, this is the largest of the Oxford companions on the military history of the dominions. All entries are cross-referenced (with star notations) and there are some well-chosen black-and-white illustrations and maps. Indexed.

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