In December 1941, as Japanese soldiers hacked their way through the Malayan jungles towards Singapore and Britain’s far-eastern empire tottered, an opinion poll asked the UK public what they thought was the most important war problem for their government to solve “during the next few months”. Fewer than 6 per cent nominated the “Far Eastern situation” or, indeed, anything to do with military operations. Instead seven-tenths picked either the need for better-directed manpower or “production or organisation of resources”. What really worried them was running out of military kit.
It wasn’t a rogue finding: wartime Britons were obsessed about output, despite all the evidence that the nation’s early reverses came from being outgeneralled, not a lack of resources. Throughout much of the war, and long after the turning point of the US joining the conflict, they fretted that somehow they were failing to produce the equipment needed for victory. During a bleak patch in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, the Mass Observation public research project even reported workers questioning whether “we deserve to win” and wanting more “concrete evidence that we are really tackling war production”.
Yet as Daniel Todman’s magisterial account of the UK’s second world war experience makes clear, they needn’t have fretted. Production was one field in which the UK, together with its US and Canadian allies, truly excelled.
Britain’s War: A New World is the concluding part of Todman’s two-volume history, whose first instalment, Into Battle, was widely praised when it appeared in 2016. In this engrossing successor, he traces the arc of the war onwards to 1947; from the fall of Singapore to the final triumph, and through to the rigours of postwar austerity.
Despite the martial title, Todman’s eye ranges far beyond the familiar roll call of military campaigns and “Big Three” conferences. This is not history seen from the bridge of the ship of state; Todman descends into the engine room of daily life, interweaving the quotidian with the sweep of high politics and conflict. It is these everyday touches that illuminate his account of how Britain first struggled to overcome the Axis and then strove to win the peace.
Much of the mythology about the war has been built on celebrating Britain’s “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity and through tales of solidarity forged by common endeavour and sacrifice. Much less remarked on is how wartime was also a time of relative financial security.
Thanks to the great industrial mobilisation, output soared — and with it workers’ pay. By the start of 1942, average wages for civilian men in manufacturing industries were 46 per cent higher than in 1938. Women made up a growing share of the workforce. The number of dual-income households soared.
The possibility of defeat had receded by the time the US joined the Grand Alliance in December 1941. The bigger concern then was about what might come after. Would victory bring joblessness and a return to the 1930s?
Many suspected their hopes would be dashed, as they had been a generation earlier. Life would be “pretty rotten for most people unless they’ve had a posh education and lots of influence,” one individual told Mass Observation. “Very bad unemployment,” said another.
Much of Todman’s account concerns how politicians tried to manage these expectations while also waging total war and maintaining Britain’s place in world affairs. They proved impossible circles to square. The need for victory pushed the economy ever further towards military production, extinguishing the export industries upon which future recovery depended.
The upside? A flowering of brilliant technical achievements, from radar to atomic technology. But it also left Britain increasingly dependent on its giant US ally, not just for war stores but for everyday goods. As John Dill, head of Britain’s military mission in Washington wrote in late 1942, the UK needed “everything” from the US “from ships to razor blades” but had “nothing but services to give in return — and many of the services are past services”.
Churchill and his ministers raged against the fading of imperial power. Yet they knew it to be inevitable, and not just because of President Roosevelt’s anti-colonial instincts, or the strictures of the Atlantic Charter. Social reform would not be denied in favour of the empire, or preserving vast military commitments round the world.
Despite the prime minister’s lack of interest in reconstruction, the foundations were quietly laid for the postwar settlement. William Beveridge’s famous report on social welfare stunned John Maynard Keynes with its expense and infuriated the cabinet — especially Beveridge’s boss, the Labour minister Ernest Bevin. “None of the ministers involved would let him anywhere near the policymaking machinery again,” Todman notes, observing that Beveridge had written it all in his head before interviewing a single witness.
Yet the wave of public acclaim for Beveridge persuaded them to swallow his conclusions. Despite his prim Victorian exterior, he turned out to have the instincts of a killer lobbyist. “He [wrote] articles for the News Chronicle and The Times, [was] profiled in Picture Post and made guest appearances on [the BBC’s] The Brains Trust, all building anticipation for what was to come.”
Bowing to inevitability, Keynes told Treasury ministers that Beveridge’s plan was “hardly the biggest threat to Britain’s postwar economic wellbeing”. Its provisions ensured that conditions after the war would be nothing like the misery that came before.
The later stages of A New World show the growing gap between Britain’s military muscle and its parlous financial condition. When its armies crossed the Rhine in March 1945, Montgomery’s forces deployed 32,000 vehicles, more than 3,000 guns and 10,000 aircraft — a materiel cornucopia.
Yet at the same time, Keynes and Treasury ministers were pleading with the US not to pull the plug on assistance at the end of hostilities, all the while preparing to fill the strategic vacuum that would be left by departing US troops.
Some have drawn parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and Britain’s wartime experience. Aside from the financing strains of the antivirus measures, which seem set to come close to the 25 per cent of gross domestic product peaks of wartime deficits, the biggest challenge is how to withdraw the huge stimulus when the emergency ends.
Keynes touched on the difficulties of this when he noted that the financial problems of the war had been “surmounted so easily and so silently that the average man [saw] no reason to suppose that the financial problems of peace [would] be different”.
Of course it wasn’t simple at all. While the US did ultimately come to Britain’s aid, this did not happen until the Attlee government had all but emptied the national coffers, bringing about the austerity that ultimately let Churchill back in 1951. UK aspirations to be one of the world’s “three policemen” were subsumed in the Nato treaty of 1949.
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What gives Todman’s book much of its appeal is the way he ranges across a vast canvas. Who knew that after the fall of Singapore, the BBC took Vera Lynn off the air for a time because of a concern that the forces sweetheart’s “sloppy songs” were undermining the nation’s fighting spirit? Or that Rommel’s evacuation from north Africa on the eve of El Alamein owed much to the Panzer Army’s poor hygiene practices when in static positions, leaving overflowing latrines close to stationary tanks?
In late 1944, keen to persuade the US to continue its aid, the UK government published “50 Facts about Britain’s War Effort”, a data-laden account of the huge effort that had been made. While this had little effect in softening the Americans, it impressed the British public. “People are pleased to know what they have achieved,” reported Home Intelligence. “But they are even more delighted at the prospect of the rest of the world learning about it.” Such documents left “a lasting legacy on British histories of the war”, Todman writes.
What emerges strongly from his book is a reminder how these postwar years set an emotional course that still marks the nation. They left the UK victorious, but also wary about choosing between Europe and the Commonwealth and empire. “Britain, as part of its developing cold war alliance with the USA, would lead on European security co-operation, but not on the integration of the European economy,” writes Todman. Where that left the country was ultimately uncertain. These are dilemmas that live with us still.
Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947, by Daniel Todman, Allen Lane/Oxford University Press RRP£35/$39.95
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s City editor
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