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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Commonwealth and Allied Forces

Australian soldiers celebrate their contribution to success in the North African campaign
Australian soldiers celebrate their contribution to success in the North African campaign©
During World War Two, forces from the British Commonwealth of Nations, then still informally called the British Empire, were involved in all the major theatres of war, as well as serving on their own and on the British home fronts. In addition to providing men and women for the war effort, the Empire supplied raw materials and goods to Britain.

The Empire fell into two distinct parts. There were the self-governing 'white' Dominions - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. And there were those regions that were wholly or partly governed from London, including India, which had its own viceroy, as well as the West Indies and British colonies in Africa and the Far East. At the outbreak of war in 1939, India and the other colonial parts of the Empire had no choice and automatically joined in the war on the side of Britain. The Dominions made their own decision to enter the war on the British side. The Irish Free State opted for neutrality.

During the war the British Empire and Dominions raised a total of 8,586,000 men for military service. More than 5 million came from the British Isles, 1,440,500 from India, 629,000 from Canada, 413,000 from Australia, 136,000 from South Africa, 128,500 from New Zealand and more than 134,000 from other colonies.

Troops from the Dominions fought in all theatres where British troops were engaged. Canada was the site of the first British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme flying school, where many pilots from the Empire and Dominions were trained. Men from the Dominion air forces - Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and South African - were incorporated into the RAF. The Royal Australian Navy served in the Mediterranean and in the Far East, as did the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. The Royal Canadian Navy made a significant contribution to Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, providing escorts for convoys crossing between Canada and Britain.

Over two and a half million Indian men volunteered for service, producing the largest volunteer army in history. Many fought against the Japanese in Burma, but Indian soldiers also served in North and East Africa, Italy and Greece. The Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) fought against the Japanese, while Royal Indian Navy ships fought in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. There were around 40,000 Indian servicemen in the British Merchant Navy.

In the West Indies, thousands of men joined the local home guard and the British Army. They were eventually sent to Europe for training, but few were allowed to fight on the front line. Approximately 5,500 West Indian RAF personnel came to Britain in 1944-5. From 1944, West Indian women served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in Britain. Over 40,000 workers volunteered to live and work as agricultural labourers in the USA.

Troops from East and West Africa fought against the Japanese in south-east Asia in 1943 and 1944. In addition, many from countries occupied by the Nazis came to Britain to serve in the British forces. French, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish governments-in-exile were established in the UK. A Czech armoured brigade served in the Normandy campaign and four Czech squadrons flew with the RAF. Belgian and Dutch units were created in the RAF, and their national brigades fought in the liberation of Europe. Norwegian soldiers, sailors and airmen served in their own units under British operational control.

The men of the Polish Air Force who had managed to escape to Britain were subordinated to RAF command. Their fighter pilots played an outstanding role in the Battle of Britain and also provided bomber crews. By the end of the war there were 15 operational Polish squadrons. Polish troops fought with the British army in North Africa, Italy and in north-west Europe. With the Communist takeover of their country in 1945, many Poles decided to remain in Britain.

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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