90: Army of Empire


The British Army would be in a very clear third position when it came to defense spending during the interwar years, but that did not mean that it did not have moments of innovation and thought leadership. Money would be a real problem though.


  • Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 by David E. Omissi
  • Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East 1933-1939: Imperial Crossroads by Greg Kennedy
  • The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1600-2000 Volume III: The Military Dimension Edited by Ian Gow and Yoichi Hirama with John Chapman
  • ‘A Fearful Concatenation of Circumstances’: The Anglo-Soviet Rapprochement, 1934-6 by Michael Jabara Carley
  • Brave New World: Imperial and Democratic Nation-building in Britain Between the Wars Edited by Laura Beers and Geraint Thomas
  • Britain at Bay by Alan Allport
  • The British Defence of Egypt 1935-1940: Conflict and Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean by Steven Morewood
  • British Establishment Perspectives on France, 1936-1940 by Michael Dockrill
  • The British General Election of 1935 by James C. Robertson
  • Patters of the Future? British Mediterranean Strategy and the Choice Between Alexandria and Syprus 1935-8 by Manolis Koumas
  • ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940 by Michael A. Spurr
  • Economics, Rearmament, and Foreign Policy: The United Kingdom before 1939 - A Preliminary Study by R.A.C. Parker
  • Fascism, Communism, and the Foreign Office, 1937-1939 by Donald Lammers
  • Fighting the People’s War: The British Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War by Jonathan Fennell
  • Forgotten Armies by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
  • Franco-British Relations and the Question of Conscription in Britain, 1938-1939 by Daniel Hucker
  • The Battle for Britain: Interservice Rivalry between the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy; 1909-40 by Anthony J. Cumming
  • Malta and British Strategic Policy 1925-1943 by Douglas Austin
  • Pacifism and Politics in Britain, 1931-1935 by Michael Pugh
  • The Royal Air Force, Air Power and British Foreign Policy, 1932-37 by Malcolm Smith
  • British Rearmament in the 1930s: A Chronology and REview by J.P.D. Dunbabin
  • The Royal Air Force - Volume 2: An Encyclopedia of the Inter-War Years 1930-1939: v. 2 by Ian Philpott
  • British Seapower and Procurement Between the Wars: A Reappraisal of Rearmament by G.A.H. Gordon
  • The British Government and the South African Neutrality Crisis, 1938-39 by Andrew Stewart
  • Strategy versus Finance in Twentieth-Century Great Britain by Paul M. Kennedy
  • The British General Staff: Reform and Innovation, 1890-1939 Edited by David French and Brian Holden Reid
  • Deterrence and the European Balance of Power: the Field Force and British Grand Strategy, 1934-1938 by B.J.C. McKercher
  • The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy 1865-1939 by Paul M. Kennedy
  • British Rearmament 1936-39: Treasury, Trade Unions and Skilled Labour by R.A.C. Parker
  • Winston Churchill’s Parliamentary Commentary on British Foreign Policy, 1935-1938 by Richard Howard Powers
  • British Rearmament and the ‘Merchants of Death’: The 1935-36 Royal Commission on the Manufacture of and Trade in Armaments by David G. Anderson
  • Whitehall and the Control of Prices and Profits in a Major War, 1919-1939 by Neil Rollings
  • Thinking the Unthinkable: British and American Naval Strategies for an Anglo-American War, 1918-1931 by Chistopher M. Bell
  • Britain’s War: into Battle, 1937-1941 by Daniel Todman
  • British Armour Theory and the Rise of the Panzer Arm: Revising the Revisionists by Azar Gat


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 90 - The British Empire Part 5 - Army of Empire. This week a big thank you goes out to Mark for the donation to the podcast. Donations are just one of the ways you can support the podcast, you can find all available options over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. During the First World War the British Army had been forced to drastically expand. Before the war had started, the British Army was a small, professional, army built around the needs of Empire. While this structure worked well in smaller colonial conflicts around the world, when met by the demands of a European continental war the entire structure had to change. First, it was massively increased in size through first volunteers, and then later through the implementation of a military draft. After the war was over in 1918 it then once again rapidly decreased in size, to be more in line with what it had been before 1914. In many ways the British Army settled back into a role that it knew how to execute and how to interact with, maintaining and defending imperial holdings around the world. There were more of these than ever after 1918 with the introduction of the Mandate system, and budgets were tight, even if the commitments were familiar. Unlike some other armies that launched directly into studies of the First World War, the British Army was a bit slower to fully analyze what had happened in the years after 1914. It would not be until 1932 that the first major official study of those events would begin. Then, throughout the course of the 1930s, the Army would fact the challenge of getting the funding that it felt was needed to be useful in a continental war, which seemed to become more and more likely each year. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force had it relatively easy when it came to their reasons for needing more funding during rearmament, they could discuss their role of defending the empire from invasion and attack. Somebody had to defend British trade, it was absolutely essential, and the Royal Navy could do that. Somebody had to defend British possessions from aerial bombardment, and the Royal Air Force could do that. The Army on the other hand really only needed to massively expand and grow if it was committed to another continental conflict. There were strong opinions in British politics that this type of commitment should not be made, and that the British Army should not be given such a responsibility. This forced the Army into a third place position when it came to rearmament funding, and it was only relatively close to the start of the war that funding was made available for the expansion that would be required in 1939. The end result was that the British army of September 1939 was actually in a worse position than it had been in during August 1914, at least when it came to being able to project power onto the continent. During this episode we will discuss the interwar British Army, some of its challenges, and then the long road that had to be travelled in the creation of a force that would be ready and capable of helping Britain’s continental allies.

One of the problems faced by the British Army, along with many other militaries after the first world war was what to do with all of the officers that had been promoted during the conflict. The British Army had expanded its numbers into the millions, and the officer corps had greatly expanded with it. The vast majority of these officers would not continue their military careers after the war, but those that did find a place in the much reduced post-war army were generally younger compared to similar ranking officers from before 1914. This then also meant that many were still around by the time that the Second World War began. Field Marshal Montgomery would later say of officers during these years that ‘They remained in office for too long, playing musical chairs with the top jobs but never taking a chair away when the music stopped.’ There was also the problem of how many junior officers had been killed during the Great War. It would have been that generation of officers that should have been replacing the aging classes of the late 1930s, but instead of taking up those positions they were instead buried in Flanders. Younger officers that were trying to move up the ranks of the interwar army were generally frustrated by a lack of opportunities, which left many in relatively junior postings far longer than might have otherwise occurred. A worrying trend had also developed which resulted in less men choosing to make enlisting in the army a career during the 1920s. For example the landed gentry, who generally volunteered in large numbers after graduating from University before 1914 instead decided to make other career choices, with the number joining in the mid 1920s falling precipitously as the prestige of being an officer having been reduced by the experiences of the war. While some of these problems might have been solved by various changes or regulations, which would occur in the late 1930s, there were other systems in place that made budgetary problems the primary limiting factor for the Army. The worldwide commitments that the Army had were problematic enough, but for a few different reasons one millstone around its neck was the Cardwell system. The Cardwell system had been put in place in the 1870s for some very justifiable reasons. It was a reform of the British Army that mandated that the Army maintain the same number of regiments on the home islands as were at any given time posted overseas. This change had been made as a way of ensuring that more frequent troop rotations could be completed, which greatly increased morale and made enlistment in overseas service more appealing. The system forced a certain number of troops to be maintained on the home islands without a direct purpose, forcing some amount of the Army’s budget to be spent on them. It also had the effect of preventing many innovations from being put in place. Because the regiments were used a replacements for overseas units, it was felt that their training, equipment, and regulations could not diverge too much from those units that were already overseas. [Record start here] If a group of soldiers was sent to India as replacements, they had to be inserted into units where the expectations were relatively the same as they had experienced during training. There were also constraints placed on the makeup and structure of units due to the variety of environments in which the troops might be asked to serve in. Central Asia, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe were all possible theaters for operations, and the easiest way to be useful in all of those areas was to make basic infantry units as flexible and interchangeable as possible, while support units were instead moved to a higher level of control. This made the infantry units able to be moved around, but it meant they were heavily dependent on other units for support. This was another continued evolution from the First World War, where these support units had been concentrated to give the Army greater hitting power in a specific location, but it also meant that they were less flexible and made heavier demands on the units to maintain close coordination and communication.

These problems in no way prevented all innovation from occurring, in fact in some respects the British Army would be one of the most innovative military forces in the world by the early 1930s. Some of these innovations were really just taking lessons learned during the First World War and continuing them into the postwar years. An example of this was the fact that officers were expected to be able to act on their own initiative and to use their training and experience on a fluid battlefield. Superior officers would give their intentions and pertinent information about what was to be accomplished and those below were expected to determine how best to accomplish it. Another of these areas was around the use of armored vehicles. During the First World War the British had been the first to use tanks in combat, and they would invest heavily in their armored forces before the armistice. This emphasis would continue into the 1920s and 30s, driven by one goal, to prevent another attrition based struggle like what had occurred during the First World War. To do this they hoped to use speed and mobility to keep the battle rolling. As General Sir Philip Chetwode would say in 1921 the goal of the Army was ’to evolve a much harder hitting, quickly moving, and above all, a quicker deploying division than the British Army had ever had before’. To do this they needed the technology, which resulted in an investment into tanks both technologically and tactically. Some of the very first large exercises utilizing armor formations would occur in Britain, exercises that were studied by many other armies around the world. The push for innovation and change did run into some problems by the late 1920s, which would only become more severe during the 1930s. One issue was relatively simple, the technology just did not keep up during the 1920s with the more progressive British officers wanted to accomplish. The tanks and armored vehicles during this time were far closer to the lumbering behemoths of 1918 than the agile armor of the 1940s. There was probably nothing that could be done about this problem during the 1920s, the technology simply did not exist to do what British armor theorists were hoping for, but as always there were also budgetary problems. There were also rarely enough motorized and mechanized units concentrated in one area to be able to show their true strength and usefulness, and there was never enough money to buy more. Then during the 1930s the technological and tactical evolution stagnated, partially due to continued budget contractions, partially due to just the general trends of British military development. When thinking specifically about armor evolution there were three major challenges faced by officers. The first was resistance from officers who did not agree with the path they were advocating for, as were present in every other army, with every major military having some officers who were pushing for armored expansion while others resisted. Some in this group believed in other paths of innovation, while others simply believed that innovations were not forward facing changes, but instead backwards looking solutions to a trench fueled stalemate that would not occur in a future war. The second was, again this is a trend throughout this whole episode, budgetary constraints. The armored units that men like JFC Fuller were pushing for were expensive to create and maintain, this made such units hard to justify in political circles. Political support was also hard to come by due to the fact that there was only one use for large armor formations, and that was a large war on the continent. An armor division would never be deployed as part of the imperial policing efforts of the army. The third challenge was from other officers within the army which were not hostile to innovation or progressive attitudes, but they wanted things to evolve differently. There were many progressive officers in all arms of the British Army, but a progressive artillery officer often focused on innovations within the realm of artillery, an infantry officer in the infantry. This third group became far more important when funding was tight, because they were protective of their own areas of the Army and wanted to make sure that they received the funding they felt they needed to succeed. But even with all of those challenges, during the opening years of the 1930s the British army was considered to be the leading army in the entire world when it came to mechanization and the employment of mechanized troops.

But the financial crisis of the first years of the decade made everything more difficult. The Army budget of 1931-1932 would be the lowest of the entire interwar period. At the same time the exercises in 1931 would see the first full tank brigade used, and they would be quite successful in their employment. This demonstration was very good for the future of the armored units, but was of great concern to other arms in the British Army that were looking at the funding available and were very concerned that they would be the ones that would be forced to come up short to fund the creation of more armored units. Then over the course of the rest of the 1930s exercises were limited in scope and frequency. This meant that by 1939 many of the officers in charge of large units had never actually commanded them in exercises. In Germany the exact opposite would occur, with exercises becoming larger and more frequent as the years went by. Not everything was negative though, and the mechanization of the Army as a whole was relatively good, and while this might have reduced the focus on armored units, it was beneficial to other arms. These changes are sometimes obscured by the funding issues preventing them from being as impactful early in the war when compared to some other armies. It is also probably worth mentioning, from an overall preparedness perspective, that the relations with the Royal Air Force were not great. The RAF and the British Army had been at odds since basically the RAF had been created, and then the RAF tried to insert itself into the realm of imperial policing, the primary reason that the British Army existed. There was also just a firm difference in opinion when it came to how the two branches of the military felt air power should be used in a war. The RAF felt that the best thing they could do was focus on operational and strategic level targets, so things like factories, rail centers, communication networks, those types of targets. The Army felt that they should put far more focus on direct support of army units. The RAF felt that this would tie them too closely to the army, limiting their freedom and impact. This disconnect would be disastrous in 1940.


While the exact changes and innovations that would occur within the British Army during the 1930s is one story, another topic of much conversation would be around how it would be employed, especially in the case of a European War. During 1933 an effort was made to try and determine British defense policy both in Europe and around the world, and for this purpose the Defense Requirements Sub Committee was created. It would recommend polices and then determine what needed to happen to make the military able to achieve those policies. This new effort in re-evaluation was prompted by the collapse of the disarmament efforts in Geneva, and it would also be during this period that the much discussed 10 year rule would be removed. That rule had been put in place after the war, and had stipulated that the British military should not plan for a major conflict for the following ten years, a window that had continued to roll forward every year until it ended in 1932. The Defense Requirements Subcommittee would meet between November 14 1933 and February 26 1934 and they would make many recommendations for all of the different armed forces. The focus was on identifying and addressing the worst deficiencies, which would be the easiest to get funding to fix. For the Army there were several recommendations, which included increased funding for the Territorials, which was the British Army’s reserve formations. There were also some recommendations around increasing the available air defenses and port defenses at various points around the world. Those were the less controversial suggestions, the much more controversial, and the one we will focus on, is around the creation of the Field Force. The recommendation was for the creation of an Expeditionary Force, not that much different than what had been sent to France in 1914. One cavalry division, 4 infantry divisions, 2 air defense brigades, and a tank brigade would be included, and it was to be held at a ready state in Britain. In view of later events this force seems quaint, and not even close to large enough, but at the time it would have necessitated a large increase in Army funding, and it was a force with only one purpose, meeting an attack by an enemy in Europe, an enemy that seemed to only be Germany.

The identification of Germany as the primary enemy against which British defense policy should be based on seems obvious in retrospect, but it would have important ramifications. For the Army it meant that it had to be prepared for a continental war, and fact that was emphasized by the Defense Requirements Sub-Committee. Just like previous generations of British military planners, they believed that the defense of the Low countries was an important task for the Army. During previous conflicts this had been important for naval reasons, and the protection of British trade. The advent of aerial bombardment made it even more critical, with the Sub-committee saying “If the Germans were to succeed in over-running the Low Countries and establishing air bases near the Belgian and Dutch coasts, not only London, but the whole industrial centres in the Midlands and the North, as well as our shipping approaching the coasts, would be within effective and even decisive range of air attacks, which owing to the shot range could be heavy, continuous and sustained.”. Even outside of the nearby coastline of Europe, the ability of the British Army to make a difference on the continent was also identified by political leaders, like Robert Vansittart, permanent undersecretary of foreign affairs, who would record in 1934 that “Europe remains in equal doubt both as to our policy and to our capacity. The results are already-or perhaps I should say at last-becoming manifest. Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Roumania, are all at varying degrees tending to be drawn into the German orbit; and on Italy’s inconstancies now largely depend Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria. The political map of Europe is, in fact, altering under our eyes and to our disadvantage, if we must look upon Germany as the eventual enemy.”. Even if Germany was seen by many as the most likely enemy, that did not mean that everyone saw the Field Force as the best way to match the German challenge. One of those individuals was Nivelle Chamberlain, later Prime Minister, but during the mid 1930s, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chamberlain did not support the Sub-committees Field Force concept for a few different reasons. The first was that he believed that the Field Force concept would be extremely unpopular among the British public, with large percentages of the British populace supporting continued efforts toward peace. The second was that he supported the Royal Air Force’s requests for additional funding to reduce the threat posed by the German air force. The key point to consider here is that Chamberlain did not disagree with the goals that the Field Force was trying to accomplish, just the methods. This prevented the funding from being made available during 1934. While he could effect the application of the budget, the Foreign Office was able to set foreign policy, and so a compromise was reached. The idea of using a Field Force on the continent remained, there just was not funding to make it happen.

Meaningful progress towards the creation of the Field Force would not end in 1934, and with each year it would gain increased urgency. During July 1935 the Defense Requirements Sub-Committee would again meet to discuss the increased threat by Germany which had started unrestricted and open rearmament. This escalated the problems for the British, but also for their continental allies, with Hankey, the Cabinet Secretary writing to the Prime Minister in early 1936 that there were growing concerns that the French and Belgians did not think the British were really capable of assisting them. Hankey would echo one of the main sentiments expressed by those who supported the creation of the Field Force, and the strengthening of the British Army in general when he would then write ‘IN a word an efficient army, if only a small one, is essential to reassure our potential allies, to put heart into them to make the necessary effort, and to deter war; and, on the day of battle, to cover our offensive air forces.’. As with all such discussions, these political proposals often got tied up in details and disagreements. Saying that the Army had to be stronger was great, but even if you agreed with that sentiment, you might still have problems with focusing funding and rearmament on a small number of divisions. Some would argue that the money should be spread out to modernize and benefit as many divisions as possible. Others would argue that the actual best path forward was to put some money into the Army, but to also push additional funding to the Royal navy, the cornerstone of British strength for generations. The Navy gained additional arguments with the collapse of the Naval treaty system. But with so many other developments during 1936, funding would be massively increased across the board, especially after the Abyssinian Crisis. The final plans for the Field Force would set the number of men at 155,000 with the goal of 16 fully armed divisions. Four Regular Army divisions would be made ready for immediate dispatch, while 12 territorial divisions were put in a position where they could follow in the months that followed.

After Chamberlain became Prime Minister, as often would happen in such cases, the entire British strategy was once again re-evaluated. Chamberlain had always been a proponent of pushing most of the defense spending into the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. And of course the leaders of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had no qualms with this view. There were some changes in plans that would be made during the summer of 1937 due to these beliefs, for example the War Office, which was planning on starting the process of updating four territorial divisions which was required by the previous plans, found that funding was no longer being made available. As Leslie Hore-Belisha, War Minister would write “My proposal for the provision of war equipment, war reserves, and maintenance for four Territorial divisions was turned down today…At some time a decision will have to be made that some of the T.A. divisions will have to be fully equipped, and there are many reasons why it would be advantageous to make a decision now…I argued with Simon [the Chancellor of the Exchequer], but he was quite firm that at present there should be no increase in the cost of the Army’s programme.”. Along with some shifts in the plans, there was also a large effort to re-evaluate everything that the nation was doing in the realm of defense. This task would be led by Sir Thomas Inskip, who would spend a good portion of 1937 doing his investigation before releasing his report in December 1937, with the report titled Defense Expenditure in Future Years. The report greatly de-emphasized any attempts to prepare the Army for a role in a continental war. Instead it suggested that the Army should focus on defense of the home islands and a force to be based in Egypt to make sure the Italians did not try to take the Suez Canal. To quote from the report: “On the basis of the policy now proposed, the Continental hypothesis ranks fourth in order of priority and the primary role of the Regular Army becomes the defence of Imperial commitments, including anti-aircraft defence at home.” Inskip did cover his bases though, and the report would later state: “I must, however, warn my colleagues of the possible consequences of this proposal in order that they may share my responsibility for the decision to be taken with their eyes open. Notwithstanding recent developments in mechanised warfare on land and in the air; there is no sign of the displacement of infantry. If France were again to be in danger of being overrun by land armies, a situation might arise when, as in the last war, we had to improvise an army to assist her. Should this happen, the Government of the day would most certainly be criticised for having neglected to provide against so obvious a contingency. Nevertheless, for the reasons indicated, I am of opinion that there is no alternative but to adopt the more limited role of the Army envisaged in this report.” During 1938 this situation did not change very much, and the Army mostly just had to make due with the money that was being made available to it. One of the major concerns expressed during this time from the War Office was not just that the Army was not receiving the funding that it needed, but that it would be forced for political reasons onto the continent even if it was not ready. In mid 1938 it was far easier to say that the British Army would not be sent to the continent then it would be with Germany troops crossing the border.