Beset by social and economic problems at home and challenging confrontations in the empire, Britain becomes involved in a second world-wide conflict.
Britain emerged into a new world when the war ended. The map of Europe was radically altered with the German and Austro-Hungarian empires replaced by new countries. In the East a strange new state, the Soviet Union, was being created to replace the Russian empire. Across the Atlantic, the United States was flexing its economic strength and, in the Pacific, Japan had taken its place alongside western industrial and military powers.
However, the British Empire still sprawled across the globe in many different forms. The dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa were self-governing entities, but they acknowledged the king as their ruler and took their forms of government and legal procedures from the British model.
[swpm_protected custom_msg='If you wish to read or listen to the complete account of this section and gain permanent access to all the other parts of Annals Britannica, please Login now or Join via Credit/Debit card on PayPal for only £5.']
Many departed from the British Isles each year seeking a new life in those distant lands. In the post war years, some also sought a better life in the newer African colonies such as Kenya, Uganda and Southern Rhodesia, where areas of good soil and suitable climate encouraged them to develop farms capable of growing a wide range of agricultural products such as coffee and tea as well as a variety of food grains. Thousands still spent years in India doing administrative or commercial work, or serving in the military forces, but nearly all returned home to Britain at the end of their careers. The same applied to those whose work took them to all the other colonies and protectorates, such as Malaya. Ceylon and Hong Kong in the tropical areas of the world.
During the Great War, Britain had enjoyed the help and support of many peoples from imperial countries around the world, but there were increasing demands for freedom and independence from British rule. Nevertheless, Britain was entrusted with a further extension of its imperial responsibilities when the League of Nations issued mandates for Britain to assume control of Mesopotamia and Palestine and ex-German colonies in Africa. Britain’s political rulers remained conscious of their responsibilities to a vast global enterprise, but they also knew its strength had been sapped in the desperate struggle of the Great War and that its post-war role was uncertain.
Some now accepted that Britain’s imperial mission was to lead its peoples to eventual self-government, but there was disagreement about how and when that was to be achieved. For instance, Indians demonstrated their capabilities as they took over some responsibility for the political and economic management of their country following the Government of India Act 1919, but much of the British ruling hierarchy was unwilling to believe that India’s religious, cultural and caste divisions could be peacefully managed without continued British supervision. Similarly, there was almost no recognition of political aspiration among the black peoples of Africa and, in the impoverished West Indies. Few of the white minority inhabitants of those countries were willing to hand political power to their coloured countrymen. The same was true in South Africa, where matters were further clouded by the cultural divide between the Boer and British white populations. Everywhere in the directly ruled empire, money and economic power counted for more than democratic principles.
The post-war coalition government was immediately confronted with the on-going problem of self-determination in Ireland. The Sinn Féin MPs, who stood for Irish Independence and represented most of the Irish constituencies, refused to take their seats in the Westminster parliament; they formed their own parliament, the Dáil Éireann, in Dublin under Éamon de Valera’s leadership. In September 1919 the Dáil and Sinn Féin were outlawed and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) intensified its violent campaign against the authorities. The British government strengthened the Irish Constabulary with recruits from Britain, who became known as the Black and Tans and whose ill-disciplined reprisals against the civilian population increased popular opposition.
By mid-1920 the British authorities had lost control in most of the south and west. On Bloody Sunday 21st November 1920, fourteen British intelligence agents were assassinated; the RIC responded by firing on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing fourteen civilians and wounding sixty-five. Soon afterwards, amidst mounting violence, the authorities declared martial law in much of southern Ireland. In Ulster the conflict assumed a sectarian aspect. Special constables were recruited from the overwhelmingly loyalist Protestant majority. In reprisal for IRA violence, the specials and loyalist para-militaries, attacked the Catholic population which mostly backed Irish independence. Almost 500 people were killed in Belfast alone.
The Government of Ireland Act partitioned Ireland and British rule in most of Ireland was ended by the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921. The Irish Free State was created as a self-governing dominion with the same status as Canada within the Empire. The six counties of Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. The treaty negotiated on behalf of the Dáil by Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, and Michael Collins was not acceptable to many of their fellow republicans, including de Valera, who resigned as president of the Dáil and was replaced by Griffith. Collins was appointed chairman of a provisional government of the Free State and a brief civil war broke out in June 1922. Griffith died soon afterwards of heart failure and Collins was assassinated in August. About 12,000 anti-treaty fighters were imprisoned and a cease fire was organised in May 1923. A general election returned a pro-treaty majority, but the two republican factions remained bitterly divided for some years and developed into separate political parties - Fine Gael (pro-treaty) and Fianna Fail (anti-treaty).
In 1922 Lloyd George’s charmed political life finally ran out of steam when widespread rumours alleged that he was corruptly selling peerages and other honours in return for large electoral campaign contributions. Conservative members of the coalition were already worried about the Irish settlement. Their growing discontent spilled over when close allies expressed concern that Lloyd George, encouraged by the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, was close to provoking an outbreak of hostilities with Turkey by issuing an ultimatum that the Turks, who were at war with Greece, must respect the neutral status of the Dardanelles. The press and public gained the impression that a major war was being risked for an inadequate cause and, at a Carlton Club meeting in October, the Conservative party voted against continuing the coalition. Their leader, Chancellor of the Exchequer Austen Chamberlain, resigned and Bonar Law, who had recently resigned the leadership due to ill health, was recalled to lead the party. The Conservative back-bench organisation known as the 1922 Committee originates from the Carlton Club meeting.
Lloyd George resigned and a General Election ensued in November. His fall from public esteem was spectacular. The National Liberals, the part of the once-mighty Liberal party which supported Lloyd George, won 53 seats whilst Asquith’s rump Liberals won 62. The up and coming Labour party, led by J. R. Clines, eclipsed them both with 142 seats. Bonar Law’s Conservatives won 344 seats and took full control of government. The Liberal party was finished. Another victim of the election was Churchill, who lost his seat and was apparently left with little chance of continuing his political career.
Lloyd George never achieved office again, although he was asked to join the war-time cabinet in 1940 by his former colleague Churchill. He was a man of many parts; one of the great radicals, he introduced the social measures which helped found the Welfare State; his taxation measures weakened the landed classes and caused the House of Lords to be shorn of its powers of veto; his energy transformed the performance of the munitions industry during the war and, as prime minister, he led the country to a hard won victory, but he undermined his senior generals and opposed their whole strategy; he reluctantly presided over the handover of Ireland into two separate entities, split asunder by religious strife; he is the only Welshman to date who has become prime minister. Lloyd George was unconventional in character with great gifts of extraordinary charm, persuasive oratory, ruthless pursuit of his objectives and artful political manipulation, but he could never remain faithful to the women who loved him and was often disloyal to those who put their trust in him. He was devious and, at his worst, he could be mean-spirited. He remains a controversial figure.
Bonar Law’s period of power was brief. His health forced his resignation in May 1923 and he died of throat cancer the following October. Lord Curzon, who had enormous political and diplomatic experience, and Stanley Baldwin were candidates to succeed him. King George V, perhaps concluding that the prime minister should be seated in the Commons, chose Baldwin, who had risen rapidly in Conservative esteem on account of his attack on Lloyd George at the Carlton Club meeting. Despite the recent turmoil in Ireland and several troublesome foreign and colonial matters, Baldwin’s chief concern was to improve Britain’s economy.
Britain was facing growing unemployment and industrial unrest, which was blamed on competition from cheap free trade imports. Baldwin decided tariffs should be imposed to protect home products and jobs, but considered himself bound by Bonar Law’s pledge, given at the previous election, that tariffs would only be introduced after a further election. He therefore called an early general election in December 1923, seeking a mandate to introduce protectionist tariffs which, he hoped, would drive down unemployment and spur an economic recovery. However, protectionism proved a divisive issue and the election was inconclusive: the Conservatives had 258 MPs, Labour 191 and the reunited Liberals 159. The Conservatives had been clearly defeated on the central issue of protectionist tariffs. Baldwin’s administration lost the vote on its legislative programme, set out in the King’s speech in January 1924, and he resigned.
The king called on Ramsay MacDonald to form a minority Labour government. With the tacit support of the Liberals under Asquith, he became the first Labour party Prime Minister. He was born in North East Scotland, the son of Anne Ramsay, a housemaid, and John MacDonald, a farm labourer; his parents never married. He went to work in England in 1886, where he learned about socialism. In 1906 he became a Labour party MP and became the group leader in 1911, but his anti-war stance caused him to resign the position in 1914 and he lost his seat in the 1918 ‘Coupon’ election. He was returned to Parliament as MP for the Welsh seat of Aberavon in 1922 and once more became the party leader. As Labour was the second largest party in the House, he was also Leader of the Opposition. His politics were more akin to social democracy and he was totally opposed to the communist sympathies of some of his party members.
Ten other cabinet members of the new government also came from working class origins, but the Labour government could only survive with Liberal support and its life was likely to be short. MacDonald’s attention during his short duration in office was concentrated on solving the crisis arising from Germany defaulting on the payment of war reparations. When Germany also refused to comply with its obligation to ship coal to French Lorraine, French and Belgian troops outraged the German people by occupying the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. MacDonald agreed with Maynard Keynes’ view that it was impossible for Germany to comply with the harsh reparations imposed at the insistence of France and Belgium. In June 1924, he convened a conference of the wartime Allies in London which agreed on a new plan for settling the reparations issue and occupation of the Ruhr. France was persuaded to make numerous concessions and Germany was granted a loan of $200 million funded by a bond issue raised on Wall Street. MacDonald was proud of the conference results; although it ultimately failed to solve Germany’s problems, it was the pinnacle of his administration's achievements.
MacDonald also recognised the Soviet Union and began treaty negotiations, which included a proposal to guarantee a loan to Lenin’s Bolshevik administration. His Liberal partners opposed the idea of the loan and, when the government withdrew charges of incitement to mutiny against a Communist newspaper editor, the Liberals combined with Conservatives to defeat the government on a confidence motion. Parliament was dissolved and the resulting election was dominated by the issue of Labour's tolerance of Communist infiltration.
The Conservatives achieved a landslide victory at the cost of the Liberal party, which was now completely supplanted on the reformist and radical left of British politics by the Labour Party. Winston Churchill had decided to quit the Liberal party and successfully stood as a ‘Constitutionalist’ for Epping at the 1924 election. With no background in finance or economics, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by Baldwin and re-joined the Conservative party which he had left in 1904. The next year he funded a Contributory Pensions Act, written by the Health minister Neville Chamberlain, which provided a pension of 10 shillings for widows plus more for their children, and the same amount for insured workers at the age of 65.
Acting on advice of the Bradbury-Chamberlain Treasury committee, Churchill restored Britain to the Gold Standard, which fixed the value of the pound sterling at the amount of gold it was valued at in 1914. The return to gold was devised to regulate money supply and keep a balance between the pound and other currencies. This had the effect of creating deflation which led to wage cuts, a sharp rise in unemployment and ultimately to the General Strike of May 1926.
A dispute over hours and wages in the mining industry escalated into a ‘lock out’. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) responded with calls for a general strike. The Labour party was worried that a complete general strike would encourage revolutionary elements in the labour movement and the TUC was persuaded to limit its strike call to railwaymen and transport workers, dockers, iron and steel workers and printers. The government used emergency powers to move food supplies and encouraged voluntary efforts to keep essential services moving. During the strike, a legal decision ruled that the general strike was not covered by the provisions of the Trades Disputes Act, making unions liable for incitement to breach of contract and the potential sequestration of their assets. The derailment of the Flying Scotsman by striking miners also fomented fears of revolutionary violence. After nine days the TUC agreed to call off the general strike; the miners eventually drifted back to work without gaining any of their demands. The Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927 banned sympathy strikes and mass picketing and also stopped the unions imposing a political levy on members unless they opted to support the Labour party.
Baldwin had no great strategic principles and approached each new problem with a pragmatic mind. People respected him for his integrity and conciliatory nature and, across the class divide, he was accepted as an honourable and moderate man. It was known that he had donated one-fifth of his private fortune to help reduce the size of the war loan, but he lacked the flair, vision and charisma of some of his contemporaries in Parliament. He improved the Conservative party organisation, so that it was possible to fight elections on terms with the Labour party, which was fortified by the organisational skills of the trade unions. In 1928, the voting age for women was reduced from thirty to twenty one, in line with male voters, so that Britain at last possessed true universal adult suffrage.
Although he had to deal with a sluggish economy and rising unemployment, which created a general malaise on the British political scene, Baldwin had reason to expect public affirmation of his administration at the election in May 1929. He campaigned on a ‘Safety First’ theme, but Labour secured a majority of twenty seven, even though Conservatives won more votes overall. The Liberal party, now reunited under Lloyd George, recovered some ground and held the balance of power with fifty nine seats, but neither of the two major parties was willing to form a coalition with the slippery Lloyd George. Ramsey Macdonald formed another minority Labour government. The press Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook regarded Baldwin as a failure, but the Conservative party hierarchy refused to replace him.
1929 turned out to be good election to lose. In October the economy was rocked by the Wall Street crash which ushered in the Great Depression. Business confidence collapsed, trade slumped and unemployment surged upward. Oswald Mosley, the Labour Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster pressed for the adoption of the Liberal measure of a public works programme, advocated by the eminent economist Maynard Keynes, high tariffs on imports, nationalisation of major industries and a radical overhaul of the administrative structure of government. Mosley was widely distrusted in the Labour movement, being married to a daughter of the aristocrat Lord Curzon (following her death, he married Diana Mitford in Germany with Adolf Hitler as guest of honour). His recovery programme was rejected by the government and, in May 1930, he resigned and was replaced by Clement Attlee.
However, nobody else inside government had any real idea about how to deal with the crisis, no firm decisions were made and the country continued to drift into ruination. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, was committed to free trade, balancing the budget, higher taxation and reduced unemployment relief. Foreign owners of sterling, fearing the currency was insecure, began to sell the £ for gold or dollars. Keynes’ recommendation to leave the Gold Standard and devalue the £ was ignored, but the government was now at the point of collapse as a significant number refused to back Snowden’s package.
In August 1931, Macdonald offered his resignation, but the king persuaded him nobody else could form a government and he should form a National Coalition government to deal with the crisis. Three Labour members joined the new National government, together with four Conservatives and two Liberals (once again Lloyd George was ignored). Most of the Labour party considered MacDonald was a blackleg who had committed an act of treachery; he and those who supported him were thrown out of the party.
In September the new National government passed a cost-cutting budget. Naval ratings, whose wages were cut, briefly mutinied at the Invergordon base in Scotland. The mutiny caused a run on sterling, which finally forced the country off the Gold Standard, and the pound began to fall by more than 25%.
MacDonald led a coalition alliance of Conservative and National Liberals into a general election in October 1931. Labour lost 2 million votes and held on to only 52 MPs; Lloyd George’s Liberals were reduced to four. The coalition parties had 556 members and the cabinet was dominated by eleven Conservatives, with Neville Chamberlain as Chancellor of the Exchequer. With the Import Duties Act of 1932, Chamberlain imposed a 10% tariff on foreign goods and lower tariffs or none at all on goods from the dominions and colonies, and reduced the interest rate on War Loan stock from 5% to 3.5%. By 1934, unemployment was falling and Chamberlain had a budget surplus; he was able to reverse many of the cuts in unemployment compensation and civil service salaries. MacDonald took no pleasure from those achievements. His health and spirit was broken. Despised by erstwhile friends and foe alike, he resigned in June 1935, but George V allegedly claimed he was the prime minister he liked best.
Stanley Baldwin now resumed the office and became familiar with an old problem. In 1928 he had sent a committee, headed by Sir John Simon, to India to consider further reforms of the 1919 Government of India Act. The Raj was struggling against potent movements seeking various forms of freedom. Opposition to British rule had become centred on the tiny figure of Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu lawyer who originally lived in South Africa, but was now leader of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi sought to bring Indians of all religions and castes together in a non-violent campaign for independence. The appalling action of General Dyer, who ordered the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, inflamed demands for a violent response and Gandhi did not represent a united front; in addition to opposing voices which called for violent action, the Muslim League, led by Muhomed Ali Jinnah, evolved the idea of a separate Muslim state, separated from predominantly Hindu India.
The Simon Committee, composed solely of British members, was met with widespread boycotts and protests by Indians of different persuasions, who felt their case was not properly represented. Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, sitting in the grand new imperial buildings at New Delhi soon realised the committee’s findings would receive little support in India. The Simon Report was published in June 1930. Jinnah declared the report was unacceptable to Muslims and Gandhi started the civil disobedience movement.
The Labour government, probably advised by Clement Attlee, one of the committee members, stated that Indian opinion would henceforth be taken into account, and that the desirable outcome of further consultation was dominion status for India. Gandhi was released from gaol and suspended his campaign. After three round table conferences with various Indian representatives, the Conservative-dominated coalition government passed the 1935 Government of India Act. It gave considerable power to India's provinces, where it proposed the establishment of representative government. However, a weak central parliament in New Delhi would have no authority over such matters as foreign policy, defence, and much of the budget. Full powers for these matters remained in the hands of the Viceroy, who could dissolve the provincial legislatures and rule by decree. The act recommended separate communal electorates be retained until tensions between Hindus and Muslims had died down and the franchise continued to be based on property ownership and education. The act contained no specific promise of dominion status for India. Rulers of the extensive princely states, which were not under direct government by the Raj, could choose to allow their state to accede into the 'Federation of India’. Burma was separated from India. The Muslim League reluctantly accepted the scheme, although it expressed reservations about the weak parliament. Although Gandhi continued his campaigns, Congress contested the first elections in 1937 and almost all the provinces elected Congress governments.
King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee in 1935, but he was ailing and died early in the following year. Respected and admired, he did much to retain the popularity of the monarchy during the economic crises of the 1920s and did his best to ensure the first Labour ministers were comfortable in their new positions of authority. He left a young successor, who, as Prince of Wales, had captivated hearts and won widespread popularity. However, his family were already concerned with the flippant attitude of Edward VIII to his responsibilities and his affairs with several married women.
His ministers were also worried about his improprieties and careless attitude to protocol. His intention to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American woman, was resolutely opposed by Stanley Baldwin the prime minister, who was fully supported by Queen Mary, the Queen Mother. There was no way out of the constitutional impasse and Edward, unwilling to fulfil his destiny and do his duty, was finally moved to abdicate in December 1936. He was created Duke of Windsor and married Mrs Simpson in France in June 1937, after her second divorce became final. Stanley Baldwin resigned five months later in favour of Neville Chamberlain.
The abdication crisis was doubly unwelcome because the national and imperial constitutional crisis collided with rising tensions in Europe and elsewhere. All the major industrialised nations were extremely wary of the Soviet Union and its creation, the Comintern or Communist International, which was created in order to foment revolution. Lenin declared in 1922: “the victory of socialism requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries”. At the end of the Great War, Germany had appeared to be the country in greatest peril from Comintern-inspired revolution. Now it was in thrall to dangerous ideas from the other side of the political spectrum.
The German Empire had been dismembered by the Versailles Treaty. Much of the East Prussian farmlands were stripped away from Germany to re-create Poland. France reclaimed Alsace-Lorraine and occupied the Rhineland in the west. All the German colonies were taken away and put under League of Nations stewardship. The German Weimar republic was saddled with heavy war reparations which reduced the country to hopeless poverty and hyper-inflation. Several attempted socialist uprisings were put down before 1923, when the Ruhr was occupied by French troops and much of the coal production of the Saar was transferred to France.
No major political parties were established in the Weimar republic and quite small groups managed to achieve brief political significance. Some of the right wing groups, opposed to government policy and industrial disruption, took advantage of the anti-Semitic feelings which often lurked under the surface of European social disorders. In 1923, one such group, the National Socialist (or Nazi) Party, led by Adolf Hitler and supported by Marshall Erich von Ludendorff, briefly took control of Munich, before Hitler was arrested and imprisoned. In prison, he wrote a book entitled Mein Kampf which set out his political creed.
Following the London Conference of 1924, the Dawes Plan was put into effect; Germany’s war debt was reorganised with the help of an American loan, occupation forces were withdrawn and the Rhineland was demilitarised. The economy improved greatly until the 1929 Wall Street Crash reverberated throughout Germany; unemployment reached 4 million and it proved impossible to continue with reparations payments. An international conference at Lausanne in 1932 agreed to a drastic reduction in the German debt, so long as America agreed to the cancellation of war debts owed by the Allied governments. The US Congress rejected the war debt reduction plan. The reparations plan then collapsed and Germany did not resume payments.
In July 1932 the Nazis became the largest single party in the Reichstag with 37.3% of the vote and, in January 1933, Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. He took over supreme control of Germany when President Hindenburg died in August 1934 and became known as Fuhrer or Leader (copied from the Il Duce title, which Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator had assumed). The Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment with a massive secret rearmament programme and extensive public works projects. A large budget deficit was incurred, but some money was recovered with the systematic robbery and violent persecution of the Jewish population. The Saarland was taken back by popular plebiscite in 1935. The following year German troops marched into the demilitarised Rhineland in contravention of the treaty of Versailles. The Rhineland stretches along the German borders with France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It was an extremely sensitive area, being a seat of Prussian nationalism and the access route for German troops invading Belgium and France in 1914. However, the French and British governments, unwilling to risk war, decided against enforcing the treaties. Hitler then put on a great Nazi propaganda display at the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Munich.
In March 1938 he sent troops into Austria and annexed his home country into the Nazi German state. Neville Chamberlain, the new British prime minister, sent a strong note of protest. Hitler was now confident that Britain and France would not oppose his expansionist agenda. He turned his attention on Czechoslovakia, where 3 million German speakers lived in areas adjacent to the German state known as the Sudetenland. Hitler demanded Sudetenland be handed over to Germany. In September, Chamberlain flew to Hitler's holiday retreat at Berchtesgaden and agreed that the Sudeten territories should be conceded and the French Foreign Secretary Daladier followed his lead. Hitler then demanded their agreement to the immediate military occupation of the territory, warning that should they refuse he would invade anyway. The Munich Agreement was signed which agreed to the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland.
Chamberlain returned, waving his sheet of paper with Hitler’s promise that this was the end of his territorial demands. The Commons received him as a peace-maker. Churchill, speaking from the back benches, warned Munich was “a total and unmitigated defeat”. Faltering British rearmament steps were thereafter speeded up and public opinion began to turn against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Germany subsequently invaded the Czech part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Some was annexed and the remainder became the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia became the Slovak Republic, a satellite state of Germany.
War was now clearly looming over the horizon. Some Britons had been seduced by Sir Oswald Mosley’s ‘black shirt’ Union of Fascists. They feared Soviet influences in the Labour movement and readily believed that Jewish bankers and businessmen had benefitted from and encouraged the misfortunes of the twenties and thirties, but most of all they admired Nazi Germany’s speedy recovery from the Depression and wanted similar authoritarian measures to be employed in Britain. Many others, however, were becoming disturbed by the relentlessly violent Nazi persecution of the Jews. Kristallnacht and a stream of refugees confirmed the thuggish nature of the Nazi regime. Added to distaste for Hitler’s aggressive moves against Czechoslovakia, this helped sway public opinion away from its previous attachment to peace at all costs.
In March 1939, Britain and France guaranteed all possible aid if the independence of Poland were threatened. The British government initiated a series of defence projects: coastal radar stations were built, medium bombers were ordered for the RAF and the size of the Territorial Army was doubled.
However, the use by the Royal Navy of three Treaty Ports in Ireland, as agreed in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, was terminated during trade talks between the two countries in 1938. The Irish State now become Eire and, although it remained within the Commonwealth, Prime Minister de Valera declared Eire would remain strictly neutral in the forthcoming war. The communication and supply lines for British naval vessels on the Western Atlantic trade routes were significantly lengthened.
The Italian conquest of the ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia or Abyssinia, in the Horn of Africa, was recognised and tacitly approved by Chamberlain, as he tried to persuade the Italian dictator Mussolini to help restrain Hitler’s ambitions. Attempts were made to persuade Franco, the recent victor in the bloody Spanish war, to remain neutral by granting legal recognition to his government. Some attempt was also made to secure an anti-Nazi pact with Soviet Russia, but Chamberlain did not trust Joseph Stalin, who was exercising dictatorial powers after Lenin’s death, and was carrying out wholesale purges in the political and military cadres of the Soviet Union. The talks failed and a week later the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact which, in the event of war, would divide Poland between them. Hitler now felt confident he had ring-fenced himself against any significant retaliation and invaded Poland. Although Mussolini made a half-hearted effort to promote another Munich-style summit meeting, Britain and France were committed to going to Poland’s assistance.
Chamberlain gave Germany an ultimatum to withdraw troops from Poland which expired on 3rd September 1939. Winston Churchill was brought into the war cabinet as first Lord of the Admiralty, the role he occupied at the beginning of the Great War. Some naval activity in the last months of 1939 was the only sign of military action involving Britain. The public was cheered when one of Germany’s powerful new pocket battleships, the Graf Spee, was scuttled in Montevideo harbour after sustaining damage from three R N cruisers, but submarine and surface attacks confirmed Britain’s trade life lines were at risk from German naval warfare. As the allies completed their mobilisation plans and speeded up their rearmament programmes, German forces completed their conquest of Poland.
Norway was the unexpected site of initial engagements with the enemy. The German steel industry was dependent on iron ore from northern Sweden, which had to be exported out of the Norwegian port of Narvik when the Baltic was frozen in the winter months. The British were planning to stop the trade by taking over the northern part of Norway, but were surprised when, in April 1940, Germany first overran Denmark, then hopped over the straits and invaded Norway. Narvik was taken and Allied troops were soon withdrawn. Chamberlain shakily won a confidence vote in the Commons, but the sharks were circling. He tried to form a national coalition, but Attlee and the Labour party refused to serve with him. On 10th May 1940 German troops invaded the Netherlands. Chamberlain tendered his resignation to the king. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and main supporter of the ‘appeasement policy’, was the most likely candidate to succeed him, but Chamberlain advised the king to send for Churchill.
At the age of 65, a man who had made news, favourable and unfavourable, since his days as a subaltern in Victoria’s India, became prime minister - his ambition from his earliest years. In recent times Churchill’s ambitions appeared to be irretrievably buried as he spoke from the back benches on numerous contentious topics. He had opposed the scheme to give dominion status to India, he clashed with Baldwin over the abdication issue and he had earned scorn and displeasure with his long and lonely campaign warning of the dangers of German rearmament. Many on the Conservative benches distrusted him, most Labour MPs disliked him; perhaps only Lloyd George, still lingering in old age on the depleted Liberal bench, knew the true metal of the man who succeeded him as war time leader.
In his first few days, Churchill faced not only the cool, distrusting gaze of his colleagues in parliament, but the disastrous news that allied generals had been misled by the German thrust into the Netherlands. Their armies were now trapped by German armoured units, who made a surprise push through the Ardennes, before continuing a headlong advance along the Somme valley, fuelled by methamphetamines to keep exhaustion at bay. The British expeditionary force was in danger of being cut off from the Channel ports. A desperate evacuation process, involving hundreds of small boats from the yachting fraternities, fishermen and leisure businesses of the south coast, began on 26th May, and nearly 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued from the Stuka-ravaged beaches at Dunkirk. All their tanks, guns and most of the 51st Highland Division, which formed a rearguard defence for the evacuation, were left behind, and the Nazis were on the shores of the English Channel. Paris fell shortly after.
Churchill was faced with a major challenge in cabinet. Lord Halifax backed Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister who wanted to call on the services of the (at that time) neutral Italian dictator Mussolini to explore the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler. With support from Chamberlain and Attlee, and notification of goodwill from Commonwealth leaders, Churchill defeated Halifax’s attempted peace overture. Having disposed of his chief critic in government, he made his “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons on the 4th June, which proclaimed to the world Britain’s intention to fight on alone against Hitler’s Germany. In September, Hitler was joined by Mussolini and the military dictator Tojo of Japan when the Berlin Pact created the Axis alliance. In Downing Street it was clear that Britain and its empire was indeed facing the world alone.
That summer, the Luftwaffe made an all-out attempt to dominate the skies of southern England, in preparation for an invasion. It became known as the Battle of Britain, a desperately close campaign won by Fighter Command, with the help of the early warning radar stations and the teams of women who plotted the routes of incoming hostiles for young pilots to attack with their Spitfires and Hurricanes.
By September, the danger was past, the beaches were secure and Hitler’s Luftwaffe turned to waging a bombing campaign against the citizens and productive capacity of London and other major cities in what was quickly called the Blitz. The British authorities quickly dispersed production facilities making it more difficult for the Luftwaffe to score a knockout blow. Contrary to expectations, there was no great increase in mental health disorders, suicides declined, and the number of work days lost to strikes in 1940 was the lowest in history.
The winter months of 1940/41 rank alongside the Armada year and King Alfred taking refuge from the Danes at Athelney as being amongst the most difficult times in British history. Night after night, London and a score of other major cities throughout the United Kingdom were devastated by the Blitz. Thousands died and many more were made homeless, their children in the care of strangers far from home. Food was in short supply and meagre supplies were only obtainable with ration coupons after waiting in a lengthy queue. Everywhere, people were wracked with anxiety, especially those with husbands, sons and fathers in merchant ships being hunted day and night by German U-boats and surface raiders.
Their head of state was a sensitive father of a young family, who had a speech impediment. He had assumed the crown with great reluctance when his celebrated older brother abdicated his responsibilities. The chief minister was an elderly man, who consumed liberal amounts of alcohol. Although his bravery was undoubted and he was absolutely certain of his own abilities, he had a long history of impetuous decisions and his judgement had sometimes proved questionable. These two men of very different character came to respect and trust each other in those desperate winter months and then formed a most unlikely bond with their people. The king and queen refused to seek safety in a Commonwealth country and kept their daughters by their side. They mingled freely among those suffering hardship, grief and loss and set an example of national togetherness. Churchill spoke to the people through the medium of the BBC radio. His unique voice and powerful use of the English language encouraged people to believe they were living through a great time and were capable of doing wonderful things. His puckish humour pleased them and persuaded them of Hitler’s essential weirdness and the buffoonery of his stooge Mussolini. The armed forces and the civil services were, however, left in no doubt that he meant to see this difficult matter through to a successful conclusion.
Furthermore, all the dominions of the Commonwealth, except Eire, which was only a vestigial member, came to the aid of what was then widely-referred to as ‘the mother country’. South Africa, where some Afrikaners harboured anti-British sentiments, was a firm ally throughout the war under the direction of Prime Minister Jan Smuts, the Afrikaner who had interrogated Churchill when he was captured during the Boer War. Men and women from the dominions and other countries of the Empire volunteered for British services and war material was supplied in great quantities along the hazardous sea routes. Imperial forces were mobilised to fight a long and world-wide war.
However, Churchill’s greatest hope, the United States, resolutely remained neutral. President Franklyn D. Roosevelt was unable to budge Congress from its isolationist position. However, in March 1941, the United States agreed to a Lend-Lease programme whereby America furnished Britain with food and war materials, including warships and aircraft. The aid was free, in return for leases on army and naval bases being given the U S for the duration of the war. In effect, Lend-Lease effectively ended the United States' pretence of neutrality.
Churchill could do little to strike at Germany except order air raids, but he intended to curb Mussolini’s ambitions by sending a force to Crete as a signal that he would protect Greece should the Italians attack it. In December 1940 General Wavell’s forces destroyed the Italian army as it advanced in Libya towards Egypt; they took more than 138,000 prisoners and 1,000 guns and captured Benghazi. The best equipped British units were then sent to defend Greece, just as the German Afrika Korps, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, was sent to aid the Italians in North Africa. The war was now renewed in earnest; British troops were driven out of Greece and lost Crete to German air-borne forces. The Royal Navy avenged the sinking of HMS Hood with the fortuitous crippling and subsequent sinking of the fearsome German battleship Bismarck.
This was followed by the news that German troops had invaded Russia on 22nd June 1941. Hitler intended to conquer the entire western Soviet Union with its good agricultural land and Caucasian oil resources, enslave the surviving inhabitants and repopulate it with people of German-speaking stock. Britain and the empire was no longer alone in the war with Hitler, but at first things did not go well. Nazi armies stormed deep into the heart of the European Soviets; some of the peoples subjugated by the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainians, regarded them as liberators and some of them assisted their new governors in the process of nazifying their country. Churchill welcomed Soviet Russia as an ally, despite his support for White Russian resistance to the Bolshevik revolution in 1919. An Anglo-Soviet pact was quickly agreed and arrangements were made to send essential supplies to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel via the Arctic convoys. This was a hazardous operation in cold and dangerous seas. The convoys ran the gauntlet of Nazi attacks by sea and air all the way along the Norwegian coast-line. A joint invasion of Iran was also agreed with Stalin, in order to prevent Iranian oil falling into Nazi hands. The pro-Nazi Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate.
One resource which remained a closely-guarded secret until long after the war was the signals-decrypting organisation centred on Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. Polish codebreakers had done much early work on the German Enigma encrypting machine. They handed over their prototype machines and the crypt-analysts’ work into British hands at the outbreak of war in September 1939. The Germans never realised their codes were insecure and British codebreakers were able to supply the Government with a stream of accurate information about German plans and dispositions. The intelligence gleaned from this source was codenamed ‘Ultra’. Churchill knew of the planned invasion of the Soviet Union through Ultra, but when Stalin was informed, he refused to trust Churchill and regarded it as false information.
Churchill met President Roosevelt on a battleship offshore from Newfoundland in August 1941 where they issued a statement known as the Atlantic Charter. In it they outlined their joint views about the world’s post-war future. It is regarded as an early foundation document of the United Nation Organisation. It was clear that America supported the British war effort but was not yet prepared to be a combatant. However, on 7th December 1941, Japan launched a deadly attack on the U S naval base of Pearl Harbour in the mid Pacific island group of Hawaii, where Captain Cook had met his end. The action was taken to prevent the U S Pacific fleet interfering with Japan’s planned invasion of British, American and Dutch territories in south East Asia. Within the next few hours, Japanese troops attacked Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore and the U S-held Philippines and Guam. The United States of America was now involved with the British Empire and the Soviet Union in a truly world-wide war. Churchill went to Washington, where it was agreed that the defeat of Nazi Germany was the first requirement of their war strategy.
In 1942 Britain continued to face further misery and loss. The fall of Singapore was a humiliation. By April, Japan occupied Malaya and much of Burma. The German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic continued to inflict severe losses. Things were not good in North Africa, where Wavell had been replaced by Auchinleck as commander in chief Middle East. The Germans established air superiority around Malta and were able to increase the flow of supplies to the Axis forces. In June 1942 the important port of Tobruk fell, which gave Rommel an important supply base as he prepared to invade Egypt. His exhausted army was eventually halted at the entrance to Egypt in early December. During this period Churchill faced increasing doubts about his management of the war, but two motions of no confidence were easily voted down in the Commons.
Churchill journeyed to Moscow via Cairo in August 1942. Although enormous numbers of Russians had been captured, wounded or killed as the Germans advanced, the Red Army was continuing to resist and had seriously reduced the offensive capability of the enemy armies in Russia. Nevertheless Hitler was still maintaining an attacking posture deep inside the Soviet Union. Despite Stalin’s demands that the Anglo-American allies should open a second front in Europe to relieve the pressure on the Red Army, Churchill could offer no prospect of that happening in the near future. But Fate was also taking a hand: - Hitler diverted troops from their advance on the oilfields of the Caucasus and sent them to capture Stalingrad - the city named after the Soviet leader.
In the Middle East, Auchinleck was replaced by Alexander and Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army in Egypt. In late October 1942, whilst the Red Army was grimly defending Stalingrad, Montgomery attacked Rommel’s forces at El Alamein. At long last, British forces scored a decisive victory. The Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal was eliminated. The Eighth Army advance through Libya and, Operation Torch, a successful Anglo-US allied invasion of French North West Africa, took the whole North African coastline into allied hands. The Axis involvement in North Africa was ended.
The United States was also beginning its long, arduous campaign to retake the Pacific islands. In India, General Bill Slim was beginning to construct a variety of British, Indian and colonial units into the Fourteenth army, in preparation for repelling the Japanese in Burma, where thousands of prisoners in Japanese hands were dying during construction of the infamous Burma Death Railway. In early February 1943, the last remnants of von Paulus’ broken, starving army collapsed at Stalingrad after being ordered by Hitler to stand fast "to the last soldier and the last bullet”. The army in the Caucasus was also in full retreat and it was clear Hitler’s eastern strategy had failed and he was doomed to ultimate defeat.
The same month, Churchill was taken ill with pneumonia after a strenuous month-long tour of North Africa, during which he met Roosevelt in Casablanca. Churchill made two transatlantic trips to meet Roosevelt that year and met the President again at Teheran in November, where they held a summit conference with Joseph Stalin. It was agreed that the western allies would mount an invasion of France the following May, and the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan once Germany was defeated. On his way home, Churchill was again taken seriously ill with heart palpitations at Tunis, where he remained over Christmas. He spent some time convalescing in Marrakesh before returning home to London in mid-January 1944.
Throughout 1943 American troops were arriving in Britain to take part in the eventual invasion of Europe. The American air force based in Britain also joined the RAF in an around the clock, sustained bombing campaign to destroy the military-industrial complexes and civilian morale of Nazi Germany. The most famous of those raids was the Dambusters’ raid by RAF 617 squadron with Barnes-Wallis’ famous bouncing bomb in May 1943.
Once the Axis forces were cleared from North Africa, Churchill persuaded the Americans to take part in a joint invasion of what he called ‘the soft underbelly’ of Europe, ahead of the promised full scale invasion of Western Europe scheduled for 1944. Sicily was quickly taken and resulted in Mussolini being dismissed and placed under arrest by the King of Italy, but the German troops in Italy speedily disarmed over a million Italian soldiers and took control of the country. Mussolini was put in charge of a puppet government with no real powers. The allies, having crossed to the mainland during these events, were face to face with the German military in the difficult Italian peninsula. They were held at bay for months at the Winter Lines centred on the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples. An American attempt to bypass Cassino with an amphibious landing further up the coast at Anzio in January 1944 was trapped for weeks. Eventually they broke out but, instead of cutting off the German army as it retreated from Cassino, the American General Clark headed for Rome, which was entered on June 4th, just ahead of the allied landings in Normandy. Whilst he celebrated in Rome, the German forces slipped through the gap he had created and set up a new defensive position on the Gothic Line further to the North.
The long-awaited Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious military landing ever attempted. Failure was not to be contemplated, but success was by no means guaranteed. In the event, careful planning, sound intelligence, much courage and overwhelming force concentrated on the four Normandy beaches won the day on 6th June 1944. A period of attrition in the difficult bocage of Normandy led to a breakout and the race across France to liberate Paris on 24th August. The Americans were now the largest part of the allied cause and took the brunt of the Nazi counter attack in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/5. The British also received a nasty jolt to their offensive further north, when the airborne assault to capture the Rhine bridge at Arnhem in September was a costly failure.
The American Fifth Army in Italy had been weakened when seven divisions were withdrawn to take part in an offensive in southern France. Consequently, the allies found it difficult to overcome Field Marshal Kesselring’s defences stretched across the north of the Italian peninsula. Churchill’s hopes of a successful offensive in North East Italy and Slovenia leading to the occupation of Austria and Hungary ahead of the Red Army were dashed.
Nevertheless, the end was in sight and the three allied leaders met once more at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945 to sort out the post-war situation in Europe. Germany was to be divided into three zones, each controlled by one of the allies. A fourth zone was allocated to France from areas carved out of the British and American zones. Berlin, about 100 miles inside the Soviet zone, was also to be divided into four zones. It was accepted that the Soviet Union, for reasons of national security, would maintain political influence in Eastern and Central Europe, despite British misgivings about Soviet intentions in Poland. Stalin would also join the war against Japan once Germany was defeated. All agreed to setting up the United Nations Organisation, dedicated to international cooperation and the prevention of future wars. Roosevelt was clearly a dying man and, after his death a few weeks later, he was replaced by the Vice President Harry S. Truman.
Meanwhile the Red Army had fought its way through Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states and, on 17thJanuary 1945, took control of Warsaw, perhaps the most tragic of all the cities which suffered foreign invasion and destruction during the war. The soviets discovered the first death camps, where millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were exterminated, and allied forces came upon more disgusting evidence of Nazi atrocities as they resumed their advance into western Germany. Soviet troops entered Budapest on 13th February and took Vienna on 14th April. On 25th April, Soviet and U S soldiers met up near the river Elbe in Saxony. Hitler, already injured by a failed assassination attempt, killed himself on 3th April in his Berlin bunker. Germany’s unconditional surrender was taken on 7th May 1945.
A British general election was well-overdue and arrangements were made for the country to vote in July. The results were declared half-way through the Three Power Potsdam conference. A Labour government was elected in a landslide and Churchill was no longer prime minister. Clement Attlee completed the Potsdam discussions on behalf of Britain. Two inexperienced western leaders were confronted by Stalin’s inflexible insistence that Soviet military control of all the occupied countries in Eastern Europe would be retained. Agreement was reached on the demilitarisation of Germany and the destruction of the Nazi party and all its offshoot organisations. The Yalta agreements for division of Germany and Austria into zones controlled by the allies was confirmed. Nazi war criminals were to be put on trial. Germany was to forgo all land annexed since 1936 and her eastern border with Poland was to be shifted westwards to the Oder-Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany’s size by approximately 25%.
However, the war with Japan continued. The British military position in the Far East had been dire following the disasters of 1942. A rabble of disorderly troops and desperate refugees had fled out of Burma into the north eastern region of India. They were confronted by the victorious Japanese at the very end of a lengthy supply chain, who were determined to keep those shattered British forces separated from the Nationalist Chinese resistance to Japanese overlordship over the border in Yunnan province. 1943 was an awful year in Bengal. A severe cyclone destroyed much of the rice crop and normal imports from Burma were no longer available. The British ‘scorched earth’ policy to keep supplies out of Japanese hands contributed to the impending disaster. Large areas of eastern India were overwhelmed by a famine which claimed an estimated 3 million lives. Whilst this human tragedy was unfolding, the British military commander General Slim, doing his best with limited resources, was intent on rebuilding an army capable of fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungle.
Early in 1944 the Japanese unleashed a determined attempt to storm their way into India with twin attacks on Kohima and Imphal in Assam. They were accompanied by the Indian National Army commanded by an ardent nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose. However, the Indian and African units in General Slim’s Fourteenth Army remained loyal. In July, Slim’s forces, aided by superior air power, drove the Japanese back into Burma, suffering from starvation and disease as well as severe losses in battle. Almost all the 150,000 Japanese soldiers who invaded India in March were dead; it was the largest defeat they had ever suffered. In 1945 the Fourteenth army pursued the Japanese through Burma, and the capital city, Rangoon, was taken on 2nd May.
Throughout the campaign, the British came upon thousands of wounded Japanese soldiers who had been killed by their comrades, as it was considered shameful to surrender. As they fought their way through the Pacific islands to confront the enemy in Okinawa, their last stop before reaching Japan, the Americans were also encountering the same Japanese refusal to surrender and determination to fight to the death. The loss of lives on both sides was horrendous. The Americans knew all their previous experience would be as a walk in the park compared with the ferocity of the resistance to be expected when they invaded Japan itself.
In July President Truman was informed a successful test had been carried out with an atomic weapon designed by allied scientists working on the Manhattan Project. On August 6, 1945, a single American air force bomber dropped an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Four square miles of the city were reduced to ruins and 80,000 people were killed immediately; tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more people. Emperor Hirohito declared Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 14/15th.
Hostilities ceased in the Pacific, South East Asia, China and Manchuria, which was rich in natural resources and had been taken over by the Japanese in 1931. As agreed at Yalta, the Soviet Union had lately entered the war against Japan in Manchuria and Korea. The situation in China, where Japan had occupied large tracts since 1937, was complicated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government being opposed by Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party of China, backed by a powerful People’s Liberation Army.
An uneasy peace enveloped the world for a brief period at the end of 1945, as governments took stock and came to terms with the new world order. Britain in particular, although proud of its position as first in the fight against Nazi aggression, was in a weak and vulnerable position. The treasury was empty, huge debts had to be repaid. The country’s infrastructure was either in ruins or worn out. Thousands were homeless or living in desperately bad conditions. The empire was buzzing with nationalist demands and a new spirit of self-awareness in the dominions.
1920 The Government of Ireland Act proposes divided Home Rule for South of Ireland (Dublin) and Ulster (Belfast).
~ Black and Tan volunteers are recruited for police work in Ireland.
~ A Royal Irish Constabulary unit fires on a football crowd at Croke Park in Dublin killing twelve civilians.
~ Inaugural meeting of the League of Nations council takes place in London.
~ League of Nations mandates for administration of Mesopotamia and Palestine are awarded to Britain.
~ The Cenotaph, designed by Lutyens, is unveiled and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior is consecrated in Westminster Abbey.
~ The Welsh Church is disestablished.
~ The Communist Party of Great Britain is founded.
~ The colony of Kenya is created in East Africa.
~ Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) later known as Mahatma becomes leader of the Indian National Congress and advocate non-violent protest against British rule.
~ Ebenezer Howard forms a company to build Welwyn Garden City.
~ First performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst (1874-1934).
~ Agatha Christie (1890-1976) writes The Mysterious Affair at Styles introducing Hercule Poirot.
1921 The Red Poppy is worn for first time at the Remembrance Day ceremony. The British Legion is founded.
~ The separate Parliament of Northern Ireland meets in Belfast.
~ Marie Stopes opens the first Mothers’ Clinic advocating birth control in London.
~ Britain supports a military coup d’etat in Iran led by Reza Khan Pahlavi (1878-1944) who eventually became Shah.
~ Treaty of Washington. Britain joins USA, Japan and France to guarantee status quo in the Pacific and agree relative size of their navies.
~ The Football Association bans women from playing on Football League grounds.
~ D. H. Lawrence publishes Women in Love.
~ Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) publishes Chrome Yellow.
1922 The Irish Free State is established as a dominion under the crown. A provisional government headed by Michael Collins (born 1890) takes office in Dublin and fights a brief civil war with the IRA. Collins is killed.
~ Erskine Childers, British author and a strong supporter of Irish Republicanism, is executed by Irish Free State forces for carrying a pistol given him by Michael Collins.
~ The IRA assassinates Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (born 1864).
~ Lloyd George resigns as coalition Prime Minister - the last Liberal to hold the office. Succeeded by Bonar Law.
~ Egypt becomes an independent state freed from British protectorate status, but British troops remain in the country and Sudan’s status is unresolved.
~ Britain receives the League of Nations mandate to administer Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan, which becomes an autonomous protectorate.
~ The Kingdom of Iraq, powerfully supported by Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), takes over the British mandate in Mesopotamia, but becomes a protectorate with the UK controlling foreign and military policy.
~ German protectorates of Tanganyika, East Africa and part of Cameroons in West Africa, becomes British protectorates under League of Nation mandate.
~ The British Broadcasting Company (BBC), under the management of John (later Lord) Reith (1889-1971), begins radio transmissions from Marconi House in The Strand.
~ Howard Carter (1874-1939) discovers the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
~ Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) begins excavations at the Sumerian city of Ur in Iraq, identified as ‘the cradle of civilisation’.
~ Francis W. Aston (1877-1945) wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on isotopic structure.
~ ‘Music Hall Queen’ Marie Lloyd (born 1870) is taken ill on stage and dies aged 52.
~ Ulysses, an avant-garde novel by James Joyce (1882-1941), is published in Paris and is banned in Britain until 1936, being condemned as pornographic.
~ The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) is published in The Criterion Quarterly which he edits.
~ The Forsyte Saga, a series of novels chronicling life in an upper middle class, Edwardian family, is published by John Galsworthy, later to become a Nobel (Literature) prize winner.
~ Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) begins writing the Just William books.
~ Anglo-American Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) composes his Colour Symphony.
1923 Bonar Law resigns and Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) becomes prime minister.
~ December election – returns Conservatives as the largest party but facing a substantial Lib/Lab majority.
~ The first FA cup final (result Bolton Wanderers 2 West Ham United 1) is held at Wembley stadium, architects Sir John Simpson (1858-1933) and Maxwell Ayrton 1874-1960).
~ Matrimonial Causes Act recognises equal rights for both sexes in divorce cases.
~ The British South Africa Company charter is revoked, Southern Rhodesia becomes a self-governing British colony ruled by a white majority.
~ The Irish poet W. B. Yeats is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
~ Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) begins painting Resurrection at Cookham.
~ Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) introduces Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body?
~ Façade An Entertainment music by William Walton (1902-53) with verses by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964).
1924 Baldwin resigns and Ramsey MacDonald (1866-1937) briefly becomes the first Labour party leader to become Prime Minister.
~ Britain recognises the Soviet Union as a sovereign state.
~ The British Empire Exhibition opens at Wembley.
~ Housing Act increases government subsidy for council house building.
~ The London Conference reorganises German war reparation debt.
~ Egyptian troops and personnel are expelled from the Sudan when the Governor General is assassinated in Cairo.
~ MacDonald loses censure motion. General election returns Baldwin to power.
~ Joseph Conrad, Polish-born English language novelist, dies.
~ Sir Edward Elgar becomes Master of the King’s Music.
~ E. M. Forster publishes A Passage to India.
~ Sean O’Casey’s (1880-1964) Juno and the Paycock is performed at the Abbey Theatre Dublin.
~ St Joan by G. B. Shaw is performed at the New Theatre, London.
~ The Vortex by Noel Coward (1899-1973) is performed at the Everyman Theatre Hampstead.
1925 Britain returns to the Gold Standard - £1 = $4.86.
~ British troops withdraw from Cologne after 7 years of occupation.
~ Cyprus, with a mixed Greek-Turkish population, becomes a Crown colony.
~ Asquith resigns and Lloyd George becomes leader of the reunified Liberal party.
~ George Bernard Shaw, Anglo-Irish writer, critic and dramatist, receives the Nobel Prize in Literature.
~ Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is performed at the Ambassadors theatre, London.
~ Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a member of the Bloomsbury set, publishes her first major novel Mrs Dalloway.
1926 A General Strike is called and ends after eight days.
~ The K2, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, first of a series of iconic red GPO telephone kiosks, is introduced.
~ The Council for The Preservation of Rural England is founded.
~ The First British greyhound track opens at Belle Vue, Manchester.
~ A. A. Milne creates the first collection of Winnie-the-Pooh Stories.
~ Augustus John (1878-1961) paints portrait of the artistic patron Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938).
~ T. E. Lawrence publishes The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
~ R. H Tawney (1880-1962) publishes Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
~ The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey is performed at the Abbey Theatre.
1927 The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is founded and broadcasts the first radio commentary on a football match and the Grand National.
~ The Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act is passed.
~ Britain recognises Iraqi independence but the mandate continues until Iraq is admitted to the League of Nations.
~ The Iraq oil Company which is 50% owned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company discovers immense oil reserves at Kirkuk.
~ The Simon Commission is to study constitutional reform in India.
~ The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres is completed by Lutyens.
~ Virginia Woolf publishes To the Lighthouse.
1928 The Equal Franchise Act enfranchises all women aged over 21¬.
~ Alexander Fleming (1881-1855) discovers penicillin at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 1945.
~ The Flying Scotsman steam engine starts operating on the London-Edinburgh railway line.
~ Thomas Hardy, poet and writer of novels about life in semi-mythical Wessex dies.
~ The Kenwood House Art Collection in Hampstead opens.
~ Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) publishes Decline and Fall.
~ Siegfried Sassoon publishes Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.
~ D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is privately published in Florence. An expurgated version is available in Britain in 1932.
~ Journey’s End by R. C. Sheriff (1896-1975) stars Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) at the Apollo Theatre, London.
1929 Ramsey Macdonald wins General Election and forms a minority Labour government. Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), Minister of Labour, become the first woman member of the cabinet and the Privy Council.
~ The Wall Street crash signals the beginning of a world financial slump.
~ Arab-Jewish clashes begin in Palestine.
~ The Scottish Presbyterian churches amalgamate to form the Church of Scotland.
~ Anglo-Irish writer and classicist Robert Graves (1895-1985) publishes his autobiography Goodbye to All That.
~ J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) publishes his first novel The Good Companions.
1930 Mahatma Gandhi starts a civil disobedience campaign to win Indian independence.
~ The Simon Commission Report on India is published.
~ The London Naval Treaty imposes limitations on submarine and aircraft carrier construction by UK, US, France, Italy and Japan.
~ White paper recommends a temporary stop to Jewish immigration in Palestine.
~ John Maynard Keynes publishes A Treatise on Money.
~ The Youth Hostels Association is established.
~ The R 101 airship crashes on maiden flight to India with 44 dead and British airship development ends.
~ The BBC Symphony Orchestra is formed with Adrian Boult (1889-1983) as Director of Music.
~ The New Statesman and Nation is published, editor Kingsley Martin (1897-1969).
~ Amy Johnson (1903-41) is first woman to fly solo to Australia.
~ D. H. Lawrence, novelist and poet, dies.
~ Morning Heroes a choral symphony by Arthur Bliss is performed at the Norwich Festival.
~ T. S. Eliot publishes the poem Ash Wednesday.
~ W. H. Auden (1907-73) publishes Poems.
~ Private Lives by Noel Coward is performed at the Phoenix Theatre.
~ Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) publishes Swallows and Amazons.
~ Agatha Christie publishes Murder at the Vicarage, the first Miss Marple mystery
1931 The May report recommends cuts to unemployment relief payments.
~ Economic problems force Ramsey MacDonald to form a coalition government with Conservative support. He is expelled from the Labour Party.
~ Unemployment benefits and government employees’ pay is cut.
~ The Invergordon Naval mutiny is sparked by cuts to ratings’ pay.
~ Britain leaves the Gold Standard as the economy worsens. £1 = $3.49.
~ The Statute of Westminster declares the Dominions are largely sovereign nations in their own right.
~ Gandhi suspends civil disobedience campaign and agrees to cooperate with conference on the Simon Report.
~ National government candidates (predominantly Conservative) win landslide majority at the general election. MacDonald remains P M with Baldwin as his deputy.
~ The Ministry of Transport issues the first Highway Code.
~ Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) and Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) start the Vic-Wells Ballet Company, later to become Sadlers Wells. John Gielgud (1904-2000) as Malvolio and Ralph Richardson (1902-83) as Toby Belch star in Twelfth Night at the theatre’s reopening.
~ William Walton’s choral piece Balshazzar’s Feast is performed in Leeds.
~ Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) publishes All Passion Spent.
1932 Import Duties Act introduces tariffs on foreign products - the end of the
Free Trade era. Steps are taken to establish imperial preference in trade in order to protect British and empire products.
~ Iraq is released from British mandatory control.
~ Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) founds the British Union of Fascists.
~ Ernest Walton (1903-95) and John Cockcroft (1897-1967), both to be Nobel Prize winners (1951), perform a controlled split of an atomic nucleus at the Cavendish laboratory, Cambridge.
~ Sir James Chadwick (1891-1974), working at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, discovers the neutron.
~ Edgar Adrian (1889-1977) and Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) win the Nobel Prize in Physiology for work on the function of neurons.
~ Mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the Derbyshire Peak District organized by ramblers and the Young Communist League claims public access to privately owned countryside.
~ The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford on Avon, opens.
~ Sir Thomas Beecham founds the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
~ George V makes the first royal Christmas broadcast.
~ Alexander Korda (1893-1956) founds London Film Productions at Denham studios.
~ Brave New World, a novel by Aldous Huxley, is published.
~ Celebrated garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) dies.
1933 Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) becomes Chancellor of Germany and Winston Churchill makes his first speech about the dangers of German rearmament.
~ The MCC’s ‘bodyline tour’ of Australia causes discord in the cricket world.
~ The World Economic Conference opens at Kensington, London.
~ The National Playing Fields Association is created.
~ Newfoundland founders under debt problems and returns to being a Crown colony.
~ Eric Blair alias George Orwell (1903-50) writes Down and Out in Paris and London.
~ Walter Greenwood (1903-74) publishes the novel Love on the Dole.
~ H. G. Wells publishes The Shape of Things to Come.
1934 Baldwin takes over most of MacDonald’s responsibilities.
~ Air defence policy announces 41 new RAF squadrons.
~ Queen Mary liner is launched on the Clyde. Work on sister ship Queen Elizabeth commences as an employment aid.
~ The Glyndbourne opera festival is founded.
~ Driving tests are introduced.
~ Robert Graves publishes I, Claudius, first part of his 3 volume novel about the Roman Emperor.
~ Dorothy L. Sayers publishes The Nine Tailors.
1935 Ramsey MacDonald retires and Baldwin becomes P M for the third time.
~ The government publishes a white paper on rearmament.
~ Conservatives win the general election with 245 majority.
~ King George V celebrates his Silver Jubilee.
~ The Government of India Act proposes a federal India with 11 provinces governed by assemblies with considerable autonomy.
~ Clement Attlee (1883-1967) becomes leader of the Labour Party.
~ Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973) carries out the first successful radar experiments.
~ Hawker Hurricane fighter plane enters trials.
~ The Greenbelt is established around London.
~ Penguin Books Ltd begins to print paperback books.
~ Anglo-American Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) sculpts the Ecce Homo.
~ Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) directs The 39 Steps a classic suspense film starring Robert Donat (1905-1958).
~ Margot Fonteyn (1919-91) stars in her first leading role Le Baiser de la Fée by Stravinsky, choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904-88), at Sadlers Wells.
~ Murder in the Cathedral play by T. S. Eliot is performed at the Canterbury Cathedral chapter house.
~ Glamorous Nights musical by Ivor Novello (1893-1951) is performed at Drury Lane.
1936 Edward VIII (1894-1972) becomes king, but abdicates so that he can marry Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), an American divorcee. His brother, unprepared for office and hampered by a speech impediment, succeeds as George VI (1895-1952).
~ The Jarrow Marchers protest about high unemployment.
~ March by Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is broken up in Whitechapel.
~ The first flight of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane designed by R. J. Mitchell 1895-1937).
~ Egypt recognises Britain’s right to occupy the Suez Canal zone.
~ The Wellcome Trust to advance medical and scientific research for the improvement of human wellbeing is founded with funds left by Anglo-American pharmacist and entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome (born 1853).
~ J. M. Keynes publishes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
~ The BBC begins transmitting a TV service from Alexandra Palace.
~ Fire destroys the Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and rebuilt at Sydenham, South London.
~ Billy Butlin (1899-1980) opens his first holiday camp at Skegness.
~ Laura Knight (1877-1970) paints Spring in Cornwall.
~ Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) publishes 25 Poems.
~ The GPO produces Night Mail, a documentary film featuring poem by W H Auden and music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).
1937 Baldwin retires, succeeded by Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940).
~ Constitution of Ireland Act. The Irish Free State is re-named Eire, an independent state within the Commonwealth led by Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), with no allegiance to the crown.
~ Frank Whittle (1907-1996) demonstrates his jet propulsion engine.
~ The Peel Commission recommends partition of Palestine with Britain retaining control of Jerusalem and Jaffa but it is not adopted.
~ George Orwell publishes The Road to Wigan Pier.
~ Sadlers Wells Company produces Checkmate with music by Sir Arthur Bliss, choreography Ninette de Valois.
~ J. B. Priestley play Time and the Conways is presented at the Duchess Theatre, London.
~ George Paget Thompson (1892-1975) shares the Nobel Prize for his work on the wave properties of the electron.
1938 Neville Chamberlain appeases Adolph Hitler by agreeing to the secession of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. German troops enter Sudetenland.
~ The British Empire Exhibition opens in Glasgow.
~ Anglo-Irish Trade Treaty. Royal Navy loses use of bases at Treaty Ports in Ireland.
~ Anglo-Italian Treaty. Mussolini (1883-1945) to withdraw troops from Spanish Civil War and Britain recognises King Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947) as Emperor of Ethiopia.
~ As violence against Jews escalates in Germany, the Kindertransport scheme is put into action to provide refuge for Jewish children in Britain.
~ Bletchley Park is bought privately by the head of MI6 as a potential home for enemy communications analysis in the event of war breaking out.
~ The first edition of The Beano children’s comic is published by D.C Thompson of Dundee.
~ Picture Post photo magazine is published.
~ The liner Queen Elizabeth is launched.
~ Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), becomes a world-wide best-seller.
~ Graham Greene (1904-91) publishes Brighton Rock.
~ Sissinghurst Castle gardens, designed by Vita Sackville–West, writer and member of the Bloomsbury Set, are opened to the public.
1939 Germany invades Poland and ignores a British ultimatum to withdraw. World War II begins.
~ Conscription is reintroduced. Expeditionary force goes to France.
~ Churchill returns to the Admiralty. Naval convoy is system imposed.
~ London children are evacuated.
~ HMS Royal Oak is sunk at Scapa Flow by a German submarine.
~ Battle of the River Plate. Damaged German battleship Graf Spee is scuttled after battle with three under-gunned RN warships.
~ An Anglo-Saxon burial ship treasure is excavated at Sutton Hoo by local amateur Basil Brown (1888-1977).
~ Britain recognises General Franco’s (1892-1975) government in Spain.
~ The IRA begin a bombing campaign in England.
~ Eire announces strict neutrality.
~ Vera Lynn (1917-2020), known as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ records We’ll Meet Again, an iconic hit throughout the war years.
~ Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) remove to Cornwall and become central members of the St Ives School for modern and abstract developments in British Art.
~ Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) publishes Goodbye to Berlin.
~ BBC radio series ITMA starring Tommy Handley (1892-1949) begins.
1940 British army units driven out of Norway by a surprise German invasion.
~ Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister and delivers the first of his wartime speeches: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
~ Most of the British Expeditionary Force is rescued from Dunkirk as France falls before the German Blitzkreig.
~ The Channel Islands are occupied by German troops.
~ The Battle of Britain. The RAF prevents the Luftwaffe establishing air superiority in preparation for an invasion.
~ The Blitz (heavy and destructive air raids on London and other cities) commences.
~ Food rationing (bacon, butter, sugar) is introduced.
~ Royal Navy bombards French ships at Oran to prevent them falling into Axis control.
~ The Bombe, based on a Polish original, is constructed by a team led by Alan Turing (1912-54) at Bletchley Park to help decrypt German Enigma signals.
~ Sir Archibald McIndoe (1900-60) a New Zealand surgeon begins facial reconstructive surgery for badly burned aircrews at the Queen Victoria hospital, East Grinstead, where patients formed the Guinea Pig Club.
~ Alfred Hitchcock, the British film director goes to Hollywood where he directs a string of classic thriller films. His first Hollywood film of Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca wins an Oscar for best picture.
~ C. P. Snow (1905-80), civil servant, chemist and novelist begins writing the series Strangers and Brothers.
~ Graham Greene publishes The Power and the Glory.
~ C. Day Lewis (1904-72) publishes Poems in Wartime.
~ W. H. Auden publishes Another Time.
1941 Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Britain begins to send aid via Arctic Convoys to Russia, which endure heavy casualties from Luftwaffe and U-boat attacks.
~ British and imperial troops are sent to Greece which has been attacked by
Germany. Later they evacuate the mainland and Crete after attack by airborne forces.
~ The House of Commons is destroyed in an air raid.
~ Anglo-Soviet forces invade Iran to secure oil supplies and supply lines. The pro-German Shah is deposed in favour of his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-80).
~ HMS Hood is sunk in the Atlantic sea battle which ends with the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, but U-boats continue to inflict severe losses on supply convoys from North America.
~ United States starts the Lend-Lease programme.
~ Churchill and President Roosevelt (1882-1945) sign the Atlantic Charter.
~ Rudolph Hess (1894-1987), the Nazi deputy Fuhrer, is arrested when he flies to Scotland on a mysterious peace mission.
~ Japan invades Hong Kong and Malaya on the same day as the Pearl Harbour attack which brings the United States into war against the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) powers.
~ The capital ships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales are sunk off Malaya.
~ The Proms music concerts are moved to the Albert Hall after their original home is destroyed by bombs.
~ Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit is performed at the Piccadilly Theatre, London.
1942 Singapore falls to Japanese troops. British troops begin a long retreat through Burma to the Eastern borders of India.
~ The Avro Lancaster enters service with RAF Bomber Command.
~ Malta is awarded the George Cross (instituted in 1940) for withstanding Axis air raids over four months.
~ Rommel’s (1891-1944) Afrika Korps attempts to reach the Suez Canal. His advance into Egypt is defeated at El Alamein by the Eighth Army commanded by General Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976). In the following months German and Italian forces in North Africa retreat and finally surrender.
~ Operation Torch. Allied troops under General Eisenhower (1890-1969), land in Algeria.
~ Sir William Beveridge (1879-1963) issues his eponymous Report advocating state-assisted and funded social care ‘from cradle to grave’.
~ T. S. Eliot writes Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets.
1943 RAF Dambusters 617 Squadron attacks the Ruhr dams with Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bombs’.
~ Massive air raid on Hamburg kills thousands.
~ Eighth army is part of Sicily invasion force, followed by landings on Italian mainland.
~ Colossus, the first programmable, electronic, digital computer is designed by Tommy Flowers (1905-1998) and put to work at Bletchley Park deciphering the German High Command’s Lorenz codes.
~ U Boat attacks on Atlantic convoys are defeated by signals intelligence, very long range bomber aircraft and improved naval organisation.
~ A famine in Bengal causes about 2.5 million deaths. Government measures either fail or make matters worse.
~ Viscount Samuel 1870-1963) describes the Nazi persecution of Jews as a ‘Holocaust’ in House of Lords.
~ Henry Moore (1898-1986) sculpts Madonna and Child for St Matthew’s, Northampton.
1944 Polish units, commanded by General Alexander (1891-1969) take the German stronghold at Monte Cassino after a prolonged and bitter siege. Rome falls shortly after on 4th June to US general Mark Clark, who fails to prevent an unimpeded German retreat to new defensive positions.
~ D Day 6th June. Allied forces commanded by US General Eisenhower successfully land on the Normandy beaches.
~ Japanese are defeated by General Bill Slim’s (1891-1970) ‘forgotten’ 14th army at Kohima and Imphal and the 14th begins to retake Burma.
~ V-1 (flying bomb or doodlebug) and V-2 rockets commence a bombardment of London.
~ British airborne forces fail to take the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem with severe losses.
~ Eighth Army takes Rimini, north eastern Italy.
~ The Tirpitz is sunk in Tromso Fjord, Norway.
~ R. A. Butler’s (1902-1982) Education Act introduces free secondary education with 11 plus exam to determine eligibility for grammar, technical or ‘modern’ secondary schools.
~ Bretton Woods international economic conference in New Hampshire, makes the dollar, pegged to gold, the world’s reserve currency and creates the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
~ The Road to Serfdom, a defence of economic liberalism is published by Friedrich Hayek, a lecturer at the London School of Economics who was later awarded a Nobel Prize.
~ Henry V a film directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier is released.
1945 Massive air raids by RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF destroy the German city of Dresden.
~ British troops enter Belsen concentration camp to discover horrific conditions and barbaric treatment of inmates.
~ Field Marshal Montgomery accepts Germany’s unconditional surrender in the northern areas at Luneburg Heath.
~ Death camps revelations in Poland confirm the holocaust rumours.
~ VE Day (Victory in Europe) celebrations.
~ Fourteenth army takes Rangoon, Burma.
~ General Election gives Labour a landslide victory. Attlee takes over from Churchill as P M with a policy of social improvement and the nationalisation of major industries and commercial enterprises.
~ Japan surrenders after USA drops two nuclear bombs (developed by the Manhattan Project- an Anglo-American team effort) on Japanese cities.
~ VJ Day (Victory over Japan) end of World War II.
~ Karl Popper, Anglo-Austrian philosopher publishes The Open Society and its Enemies.
~ Animal Farm by George Orwell is published.
~ Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is published.
~ Nancy Mitford writes The Pursuit of Love.
~ Brief Encounter, a classic British romantic film directed by David Lean (1908-91), is released.
~ Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes is performed at Sadlers Wells