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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : British Army

Pre-war to present

Location: Every land theatre of World War Two, except the Eastern Front.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the army was made up of the Regular Army and the Territorial Army (TA). Limited conscription was already in place, introduced in April 1939. In addition to the army troops based in the UK, there were those based overseas, with the bulk of them in India. Others were scattered in small garrisons throughout the British Empire.

The army was effectively divided into the 'teeth' (the part that actually engaged the enemy in battle), and the supporting 'tail'. The 'teeth' consisted of the Royal Armoured Corps, formed from the one-time cavalry and largely mechanised, the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), infantry regiments and the Royal Artillery. Airborne forces were raised in 1940, with the Parachute Regiment and Glider Pilot Regiment being formed in 1942, and some line infantry battalions became glider-borne units.

The Royal Artillery had the largest proportion of manpower of all the services. Combat support was provided by the Royal Engineers, whose members were known as the Sappers, responsible for mine laying and clearance, building bridges, camps, airfields and roads, and the Royal Corps of Signals.

The main constituents of the 'tail' were the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), which maintained supplies to troops in the field, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), which provided stores ranging from clothing and furniture to weapons and vehicles, and the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). Three new corps were formed in the course of the war - the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), the Intelligence Corps and the Army Catering Corps.

In addition there were smaller corps, including the Chaplain's Department, the Army Dental Corps, the Corps of Military Police, the Pay Corps, the Army Educational Corps and the Pioneer Corps.

For every infantryman and tank soldier serving in the front line, there were approximately nine in the other arms and services.

The cornerstone of the army was the regimental system, made up of units that often recruited for new members regionally and that had long and illustrious histories. The idea was that someone joined a particular regiment and stayed in it throughout their army service, generating in them a sense of loyalty and pride which encouraged a fighting spirit. As casualties rose it became increasingly difficult to maintain this system, and soldiers were posted as reinforcements to regiments with which they had no connection.

After Dunkirk, control of British land forces in the UK was put under GHQ Home Forces, which operated through geographical commands and districts. Some of these, for example, were Southern, Western, Northern and Scottish. GHQ Middle East Command, based in Cairo, controlled British and imperial forces in the Western Desert, East African and Syrian campaigns and in Iran and Iraq. There was later an East African Command and a Persia (Iran) and Iraq Command. These two countries had previously come under the Commander-in-Chief India, who was also responsible for Burma.

The Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) was set up in 1939 to enable women to serve in the army. Nursing support was provided by the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service and the Territorial Army Nursing Service, amalgamated in 1949 to form the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps.

The British Army fought for six years in almost every land theatre of World War Two, except the Eastern Front. Just over 3.5 million men and women served in the army during this war. Of these, 144,000 lost their lives.

Demobilisation began in June 1945 and was organised on the basis of age and length of service. Unlike demobilisation after World War One, the process was handled efficiently, and was effectively over by the end of 1946.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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