Britain never ‘stood alone’!

It’s widely reported now that Britain “stood alone” at the beginning World War 2, especially after the Battle at Dunkirk. However this is not strictly true (for a short while after the fall of Dunkirk, it may have felt like it, but it was not the case) very quickly coming to aid Britain “in her hour of need” and reinforce her troops, airman and seamen were the armed forces of the British Commonwealth – and not only the armed forces but also the raw materials and industry of the likes of Australia, India, South Africa and Canada – an all in effort to aid the United Kingdom, push back the advances of Fascist and Nazi thinking and change the course of European history.

It’s generally misunderstood – but within a day of the United Kingdom and France declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Australia had declared war on Germany as well. It was just 3 short days later that an independent parliament in South Africa declared war on Germany on the 6th September 1939 (very early on if you think about it – the sixth country to declare war on Nazism). Quickly followed by Canada’s independent parliament who just four days after South Africa’s declaration also declared war on Germany – 10th September 1939.

ec870169d927bce4a8e213eb015ec886On the eve of World War II the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. Though closely allied with Great Britain as a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with the British king as its head of state, South Africa had as its Prime Minister on 1 September 1939 Barry Hertzog, the leader of the pro-Afrikaner anti-British National party that had joined in a unity government as the United Party.

Herzog faced a problem: South Africa had a constitutional obligation to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis.

After Hitler’s forces attacked Poland on the night of 31 August 1939, Britain declared war on Germany (3 September). A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa, that pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain’s side led by the pro-Allied, Afrikaner, ex-Boer War General, and former Prime Minister Jan Smuts, against then-current Prime Minister Barry Hertzog, who wished to keep South Africa “neutral”, if not even pro Nazi Germany in the hopes Germany would win (as Germany had sided with the Boer Republics during the Boer war there was a groundswell in the Afrikaner right politics in support of Nazi Germany).

On 4 September 1939, Hertzog’s motion to remain out of the war was defeated in Parliament by a vote of 80 to 67, he resigned, and Smuts became Prime Minister of South Africa and declared South Africa officially at war with Nazi Germany and the Axis.

12509723_536128123223591_2929433976375636116_nTo celebrate Smut’s victory in Parliament that day a special button/lapel badge was made inscribed with 4-9-1939 for the party faithful.

Smuts immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa’s global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.

RhodesianPostcard001A very interesting part of the sequences of declarations of war against Germany, was that of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and it stands out as a unique one.  The Southern Rhodesian government almost immediately followed the British declaration of war with their own.  They can even be said to hold the mantle as the very first of the British Dominions and Colonies to stand by Britain in their hour of need.  Steadfast and swift in support of their ‘motherland’ – The United Kingdom, no quibble about it either, as there was no long parliamentary debate over the issue – it came without even a second thought on the matter. In all 26 000 Rhodesians volunteered to fight during World War 2.

The irony is that when Rhodesia ‘stood alone’ in an armed onslaught in the 60’s the country to abandon them was in fact the United Kingdom, forcing them to declare unilateral independence of Britain.  A fact not missed on the rather cynical ‘old Rhodesians’ today who remember their WW2 sacrifices with a very real sense of treachery, and it’s a fact missed on the British public today.

Today, some South Africans often point to Britain ‘abandoning’ South Africa when its armed insurrection started in the mid 1960’s as well.  However they are quick to forget that the very ‘anti-British’ National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961 and strained all ties.  South Africa ‘stood alone’ on the Nationalists policy of Apartheid and there was nothing the British could really do about it. However to the Rhodesians there is deep cause for unhappiness as they never wanted to abandon any of their British ties whatsoever.

1551745_243308472505559_1055161002_nIn terms of the semantics of the ‘term ‘standing alone’ after Dunkirk, in many cases the Commonwealth countries did not have immediate operational readiness to come alongside the UK in the summer of 1940.  However we must remember that the Battle of Britain (when Britain really ‘stood alone’) was an air battle, where a ‘few’ pilots held off the German assault – and alongside the 2353 British pilots stood 574 pilots from other countries – 24%, – a quarter of the combat force.  Most of them came from the Commonwealth countries (342 pilots in total including Rhodesians and South Africans). So Britain never really ‘stood alone’ in that context either.

So, in conclusion, the idea that following Dunkirk, Britain stood alone against a tidal Nazi onslaught is quite incorrect.  However due to changing geo-politics, what is dissapointing now is that memory of the sacrifice of men and women from countries like India, Kenya, South Africa and Rhodesia are fading fast in the general populations – in their own countries and in the United Kingdom.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Source – wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica