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The Empire and the Second World War, Episode 88 - 14/06/06

Overview

1st March 1940: Indian troops, led by British officers, march out of their  desert camp in Egypt. The Indians were the first of the Empire troops to take  up their station in the Middle East for the North African campaign.(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

1st March 1940: Indian troops, led by British officers, march out of their desert camp in Egypt. The Indians were the first of the Empire troops to take up their station in the Middle East for the North African campaign.
(Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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During 1939 -1945 the British Empire joined together in war for the final time. More than 8.7 million from the colonies and dominions rallied round the union flag. More than 450,000 were killed.

Churchill in 1940 proclaimed "Without victory there is no survival. Let that be realised. No survival for the British Empire. No survival for all that the British Empire has stood."

At the start of the war, many thought the empire was finished. But the dominions especially had other ideas. The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies announced "We are in this most holy war with you; everything that we have of manpower or treasure or skill or determination is pledged to work and fight for you and with you until victory is attained ... One King, one Flag, One Cause."

The New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Savage, asked the governor general for a formal declaration of war before proclaiming 'Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand'.

The Canadians contributed nearly 500,000 and their first contingents arrived in Britain by December 1939. The Australians raised more than half million men and women - 27,000 of them were killed. Two divisions of New Zealanders were in the Pacific and the Middle East. The South Africans, who at first stayed in their own continent, later fought through Italy. Tens of thousands of colonials went through aircrew training - much of it in Canada. Of the more than 30,000 merchant sailors who perished during the Battle of the Atlantic, 5,000 were from the colonies.

In Africa, as many as 200,000 became miners, carriers and labourers to harvest the natural resources needed to manufacture weapons and feed those who would use them. Ghana produced industrial diamonds and manganese for guns. Nigeria produced timber, palm oil, groundnuts, rubber and tin. Sierra Leone raised war funds for Britain "in grateful recognition of the great benefits which Sierra Leone has received during the past 135 years under the British flag." The ruler of Benin gave 10 a month out of his salary.

The Dominions, including Australia, had the option of joining the war or not. Not so the Indians. The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow declared war without consulting any of the major political or cultural figures. They were treated just as they had been at the start of WWI.

Indian Congress refused to participate in government. But Gandhi told Linlithgow that he viewed the war with an English heart. Nehru said he was offended by the viceroy's proclamation but not its sentiment and, 2.25 million Indian Army soldiers were committed to the war.

The war briefly revived British imperialism. But the Attlee government that followed Churchill's coalition in 1945 knew the end of empire was in sight. By 1947, even Churchill could see that.

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Historical Figure

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, 11894-1978

Sir Robert was a lawyer who became a member of the state (Victoria) parliament in 1928. He was shortly elected to the Federal Parliament and was Commonwealth attorney-general immediately before the war. He was PM during 1939-41, then in Opposition until 1949 when he became PM of the coalition government and remained so until 1966. He had a reputation of being very pro-British and an optimist.

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Did You Know...

After the London Blitz, the people of Ondo in western Nigeria collected money for homeless children in England.

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Have Your Say

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Contemporary Sources

The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, was one of many who rallied to the cause of the Empire:

"I address you as fellow citizens of the great British Empire and it is my honour to speak to you from the centre of the empire. You and we are of one blood and we are not to be put down by ambitious adventurers or predatory rogues. You may never be tempted to think that your fight is a lonely one.

Speaking, I am sure, not only for Australia, but for the whole of the British Empire beyond the seas, I say to you: we are in this most holy war with you; everything that we have of manpower or treasure or skill or determination is pledged to work and fight for you and with you until victory is attained and a better and juster day dawns for the world in which our children are to live. One of my objects in coming here is to help by discussion and arrangement a maximum Empire effort. We should perhaps constantly remind ourselves that only if we are producing all that our resources and skill can produce, without restriction by economic theory or speculation upon post-war trading policies, can we say that the Empire is 'all in'. And 'all in' we must be - our second best will not win this war.

Many people in this country say to me "how marvellous it is that you Australians, all these thousands of miles away from us, should be doing what you are doing". But it is not marvellous. It is not some rare and strange phenomenon. If this were your fight and we were graciously helping you, it might be difficult, but this is our fight just as much as it is yours.

It was the fashion a few years ago to say that there were disintegrating elements in the British Empire. Learned people said that there were centrifugal forces at work and the result of them would be that when the next strain came on the structure, Australia would go one way, New Zealand would go another, Canada another, and so on. I like to remember that all this barren, miserable theory went right down the wind the night that the war was declared. If there is one thing that is clear to every British citizen living in any part of the British world, it is this: it is your fight, it is his, and his is yours."

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