Without demeaning the sacrifice of those who fought in the ranks of the British, lets do a simple review:
In land, where the the bulk of the war was fought, Britain did a poor showing
Mediterranean and N Africa
In Mediterranean, Britain had some successes against the ill equipped and unwilling Italians. But not only those successes came to a halt due to Churchill personally stopping the successful assault to send British troops to defend Greece, but also that time lost allowed Afrika Korps to be created and then land in force in North Africa, opening a can of worms. (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II – even though they seem to be the same, these links go to the relevant subtopic)
After that, they were quite under matched against Afrika Korps under Rommel until US came in to help in force. And Rommel’s forces were always under equipped and under supplied throughout their campaign – especially oil. Which limited their options and mobility a lot. In El Alamein, after major disasters, they were able to stop exhausted Afrika Korps. At that point major reinforcements were arriving and US-UK forces were landing in Tunis, so things have changed. Still it took some time to weed out Afrika Korps from North Africa.
Britain had been very successful in attacking and destroying its former ally, French, however. After sweeping Iraq after a coup placed a pro-axis government there, Brits swept into Syria because a single German aircraft flew over Iraq, which was interpreted as the Vichy officials controlling Syria allowed it to use Syrian airfields – since Rhodes was so far away it couldnt fly that distance by itself. After that they attacked Syria and took it over after destroying the French there. (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II) A combined invasion of Iran together with USSR happened, but British did not constitute an overwhelming majority of the force, neither did Iran put up any resistance.
SE Asia, Pacific, Far East
Britain had a hard time coping up with under equipped (compared to Germans, USSR, US) Japanese in Pacific and SE Asia. Withdrawing in almost every engagement they had with the Japanese, including naval ones. (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II) However they were successful, again, in attacking the French in Madagascar, beating their undermanned allies real well and taking over. After US came into play in force, they were a sidekick to whatever was happening in Pacific/ SE Asia. Neither things went any differently in Far East. (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II)
Western Europe, Italy
In Western Europe, Britain was promptly beaten back in Battle of France, after that did a poor showing again in Norway (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II) . Even Royal Navy had difficulty in Norway. (Norwegian Campaign) Dieppe raid ended in catastrophe. (Dieppe Raid) However, British did numerous successful commando operations to continental European coast, throughout the war. List of military operations in the West European Theater during World War II by year
Italy landings happened mainly due to initiative of Churchill, who, along with his staff argued that Italy was the ‘soft underbelly of axis’. How they were able to persuade US to buying that is a curious case, since one look at the map of Italy with its hilly northern countryside and first Swiss Alps totally encircling its northern border and then rough terrain and forests topping it even further north tells even people who are not trained in the arts of warfare that there would be hell waiting there. And not surprisingly, there was – Germans quickly took over from Italian army and a lot of blood had been spilled throughout Italy campaign – mainly Allies’.
In Normandy, British troops constituted 3 of the 8 divisions which landed in Normandy and parachuted down. After that point, British forces were mainly under the command of Eisenhower and despite they put up valiant effort in whatever they were assigned to, they were basically sidekicks to highly numbered US forces. An operation, Operation Market Garden, in which British took the initiative (Montgomery) to plan and implement, ended in disaster, with 80% of the force committed there being lost.
After that, they remained secondary to US forces advancing towards Germany, despite their respectable efforts.
All these events make one wonder, maybe it was British leadership that screwed up all these operations…
In Sea, an overextended British Navy did a good showing
In Atlantic, mainly due to overwhelming numbers and long standing experience and extensive base networks, British navy was quite successful in containing what little naval power Germans had. However Bismarck affair tells that things could go quite differently if Germans had more naval power. (German battleship Bismarck) After Bismarck, it wasn’t so hard for British Navy to deal with pocket battleships Germany had across Atlantic.
A major success of British Navy in Atlantic, however, is dealing with massive German submarine warfare. Germans were inflicting decent damage on the supply convoys which fed UK from USA, and they even had major victories against like sinking of Ark Royal. However, despite Germans succeeded in reaching their tonnage target for sinking and crippling UK merchant marine in the first 4 months of the war, after US merchant marine joined UK through Lend & Lease, the submarine warfare became impossible to succeed strategically. (Battle of the Atlantic)
A major noteworthy achievement of Britain is developing the engineering field of Operations Research while trying to cope up with the problem of allocating what scarce naval resources they had to conduct the submarine warfare as efficiently as possible. This did great benefit to not only battle of atlantic and various other operations in the war, but became a major engineering field. (Operations research)
SE Asia, Pacific
In Pacific Britain had a quite hard time dealing with Japanese, until the situation changed with US coming into war in force and turning the tide. (Pacific War) After that point, Britain fought under the shadow of US all the way to Japan. (Pacific War)
This is a bit an indicator of what could happen if Germans had enough naval presence and aircraft carriers.
Royal Navy fights with Italian Navy, had good successes using torpedo raids and direct naval engagements against Italians. (Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II) After that, in Malta they were successful in keeping Malta in their hand despite massive German pressure. Malta was vital to intercepting and crippling supplies which were being sent to Afrika Korps from Germany.
However, Britain had major success again, in attacking their former ally, French. They attacked French ships in Al Kebir, sank two and then harassed another until it escaped to Toulon, killing thousands of French sailors. (Force H) After Afrika Korps was neutralized and Italy was out of the game, there wasnt any opposition left to Royal Navy in Mediterranean.
In air the jury is out
In Battle of France, British did not do much showing. Before battle of France there wasn’t much done by either British or French against Germans either – they basically waited for 8 months during the Phoney War. After Germans attacked, neither British or French were able to cope up in air, due to quite modern tactics and equipment Germans used.
In Battle of Britain, things changed. With the help of Radar, extensive observer network and a well planned defense campaign, British was able to cope up with a massive air campaign by Germany. First stages of the battle was very surprising for Germans, since they saw that Brits ‘knew’ where Germans were going to attack from. Thanks to radar of course. However they quickly adapted.
Overall Britain did a very good showing by using the over stretched resources they had, in coping with German onslaught. Most of the fighting was carried by Hurricane fighter, the easy to produce and fly backbone of the fighter corps in Battle of Britain. It was a good stable gun platform too. Spitfire was in lower numbers, though a capable aircraft. But it was more celebrated as a public relations figure.
In the time from Battle of Britain until Normandy, RAF pulled major air stunts in Western Europe in the form of specialized, specific purpose raids. Mosquitoes bombing a Gestapo prison in Germany and allowing a lot of prisoners to escape (tho some died in the bombing), along with similar other operations in Denmark. (Operation Jericho Operation Carthage Aarhus Air Raid)
The dam-busting bombing operation of the dambusters is also something worthy of note. (Operation Chastise) The fact that this dam being broken and flooding Ruhr valley and killing many civilians in villages, is another matter.
Bomber Command wasn’t picky about its targets, at all. Actually, Harris thought it was a good thing to massacre civilians en masse. These people thought that a war could be won by massacring the civilians of the enemy en masse and destroying their cities, which would somehow cripple their ‘morale’ and ‘will to fight’ and their industry.
Throughout the war they doggedly kept a bombing campaign going against cities in Europe and Germany, succeeded in killing millions of people who had little connection to the German war effort.
They succeeded in destroying over 20 German cities with percentages ranging from ~33% to 80%, average being around 50%.
Dresden needs a special mention, since there British managed to burn ~500,000 German civilians to death by using incendiary bombs, over one single night.
All these massacres did little to impact German war effort, since Germans had had moved their military related industry to other locations and mostly underground, and were using slave labor. (Mainly ~7 million civilians brought from occupied USSR, and various minority peoples in Europe).
Despite US was not so convinced to participate in these raids against cities and civilian population and preferred to assign bulk of their fighting force to bombing what German industry center was left over the ground, British Bomber Command did not relent from its conviction until the end of the war.
Bomber Command sustained major losses throughout the course of the war due to German defense activity, despite most of Luftwaffe was tied up fighting in the massive Eastern Front.
Before, during and after Normandy, RAF did a good job in tactical strikes, close air support and interdiction missions in Europe, much to the help of advancing ground forces. Though, the bulk of the effort came from US aircraft which were fielded in quite high numbers.
Mediterranean & N Africa
RAF fought with Italians and Germans and coped up effectively, though Italians were under supplied with aircraft and rather behind in technology, and Germans could not allocate much to Mediterranean. Battle over Malta is a fine time for RAF, in which two winged old Gladiator fighters valiantly defended Malta from much more modern Italian aircraft. (Hal Far Fighter Flight)
Brits put up a good fight against what Germans could spare for North Africa, and had some innovative solutions for innovative problems. For example refitting Hurricanes with 20 mm cannons to use them against armored vehicles and light tanks on the ground were smart ideas. In general, British coped up with desert conditions and North Africa campaign well.
East Asia, Pacific, SE Asia
British were no match for the Japanese in these fronts. Japanese were not only well matched in terms of capabilities of their aircraft, but also experienced. To Brit’s credit, Japanese was slapping the living daylights of all the allies’ forces combined, in the early days of the war. (Air warfare of World War II) Situation did not change until after 1943, when mainly US effort caused major attrition in Japanese pilot force, aircraft stock and supplies, also changed the technological superiority. Japanese was able to field advanced aircraft in the later half of the war as well, but they weren’t able to do it in numbers enough to constitute a factor.
All things taken into account, British contribution to the war mainly seems in delaying the German movements in Battle of Britain and Mediterranean & Balkans, and then in playing support to bigger forces in the war.
This is not an unusual conclusion though, since Churchill himself apparently concluded the same thing, and basically handed over not only the reins of war effort to his ‘friends on the other side of the Atlantic’, but also the ‘protector-ship of the class of the opulent’ (rich)… Churchill thought it was the right of the elite to govern the masses, he was an elitist, but that’s another topic. What major significance his speech to secret parliament session in handing over the torch bearer-ship of ‘the rule of the opulent class’, is that it basically means handing over the war effort as well. For it was rather evident that US was going to handle the bulk of the war effort and Britain had no means to conduct any decent operation against Germany in mainland or cope up with Japanese in asia, seeing how what it did up to that point was helped to a great extent by US lend & lease.
Not surprisingly, an american, Eisenhower becomes the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe and conducts entire war effort before Normandy until armistice.
Thus, despite the forces fighting in British uniform had contributed quite valiant efforts and their blood and had spectacular successes, it is hard to say that Britain had contributed as much as USSR and US to World War 2 effort. For which they have little blame however, since neither their resources nor their manpower were comparable to either two. Still, Royal Navy’s contribution to control of the seas was quite important in many respects.
Special mention must go to the British leadership, which not only signed under major disasters and episodes of incompetence, but even stubbornly pursued various tactics which should be prosecuted – some as war crimes, like Bomber Commands’ massacre of millions.
Analysis concluded, my respects go out to each and every single person who fought under any flag to save the world from the scourge of fascist ideologies.
Viva! Thanks for your service!