In recent years, successive British prime ministers and American presidents have made much of the “special relationship” between Britain and America in an effort to promote a closer association between these two countries. This has been especially apparent in relation to the current “war on terror”. Much emphasis has been placed on their shared history during the second World War and the Anglo-American alliance is now presented to the world as an association that grew out of mutual trust and regard during the fight against the Axis powers.
This new study of the Anglo-American alliance during the second World War by Niall Barr offers a more nuanced picture, arguing that the wartime relationship between Britain and America developed despite previous conflicts between the two countries and a level of distrust that simmered throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
During the early years of the second World War, nothing suggested that the Anglo-American relationship would grow so strong. In fact, previous conflicts suggested otherwise. America had broken away from Britain following the Revolutionary Wars of 1775-83 and war had broken out between the two countries again in 1812. To add further insult, during the so-called “War of 1812”, Washington DC had been seized by British troops and both the Capitol building and the White House had been set on fire, along with other public buildings.
Anglo-American tensions continued throughout the 19th century, especially during the US civil war when Britain showed support for the Confederacy. Despite being allies during the first World War, there were difficulties between American and British commanders and US forces initially operated in association with French formations. During the 1930s, the US government enacted a series of Neutrality Acts, the last being passed only in 1937. American intervention in another European war seemed unlikely, despite widespread concern in the US about the spread of Nazism. In an opening chapter entitled “Family Legacy”, Barr unpacks these long-term differences and resentments, showing how unlikely the later wartime alliance perhaps was.
The fall of France during the summer of 1940 changed all of this. By September 1940, Britain and America had signed the Destroyer for Bases Agreement, which provided the British with more ships to counter the developing U-boat campaign. By March 1941, this had developed into the “Lend Lease” system that would eventually see more than $31 billion worth of oil, food and war material (everything from ships to Tommy guns) sent to Britain.
Following America’s actual entry into the war in 1941, the Arcadia Conference was held in Washington, DC. At this initial Allied conference, Churchill and Roosevelt and their respective staffs met to discuss future strategy. A combined Allied staff was created and it was agreed to bring American troops and bombers to Britain, while operations were planned for North Africa and the Far East.
Arcadia was the first of a series of conferences between Allied leaders, which would later see the involvement of the Soviets. While discussing these early developments, Barr shows how key personalities developed close working relationships and how these connections were to prove to be crucial for the whole process. For example, the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt allowed for frank discussion of the objectives of the grand strategic plan. This association would continue throughout the war with Churchill speaking with Roosevelt by phone on a regular basis. Senior officers, on both sides would also drive this process. In Washington, the chief of the British mission, Field-Marshal Sir John Dill (from Lurgan, Co Armagh), played a key role from 1941 onwards in co-ordinating joint efforts and he co-operated closely with General George C Marshall, the chief of staff of the US army.
As the number of US servicemen began to build up in Britain, huge efforts went into accommodating them and developing combined training programmes. Britain would become a vast staging area for air and sea operations and also later expeditions to the Mediterranean and Europe. While Allied troops trained and would eventually serve alongside each other, there were continued tensions and there was considerable hostility between British soldiers and their high-spending American counterparts.
At a senior level, there were also tensions, with serious personality clashes occurring during the campaign in North Africa in 1942. During the Sicily campaign in 1943 these fault lines became more apparent as the relationship between Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley gradually worsened while their immediate superiors (Dwight Eisenhower and Harold Alexander) found it increasingly difficult to control their fractious subordinates. These tensions emerged once again as the debate surrounding the appointment of a “Supreme Allied Commander” heated up in late 1943. While Eisenhower was appointed to this position in December 1943, it was only after considerable political wrangling, as Montgomery also lobbied strongly for the appointment.
Barr demonstrates, therefore, that the growing “special relationship” was often undercut by serious tension between the military and political leaders. While Allied soldiers operated effectively on the ground, the relationship between their strategic-level leaders was often dysfunctional. Later campaigns in the war, such as Operation Market-Garden in the Netherlands in 1944, were highly contentious, with the Americans expressing serious reservations about Montgomery’s plan. Underlying this discord was the fact that the Americans were gradually emerging as the dominant partner during 1944. After years of campaigning, Britain’s manpower was looking increasingly finite while at the same time more and more American troops were coming on line.
Maintaining an effective coalition during the last phases of the war was to prove particularly tricky, especially as the Allied powers considered how to shape postwar Europe and, indeed, the world. Churchill found the Americans generally unsympathetic regarding the future of what remained of the British Empire, in particular India. That the Anglo-American alliance continued to function is testimony of the resolve of both nations to overcome the evils of Nazism. In the postwar world, the perceived threat from Soviet Russia meant that the alliance would endure as the world slipped into the Cold War.
Barr has dealt with this remarkably complex relationship with considerable skill and he outlines the historic causes of tension very effectively. Yanks and Limeys disassembles the Anglo-American relationship at its various levels showing that, while combat troops faced common enemies in the Germans and the Japanese, on occasion their senior commanders were pre-occupied with the machinations of their own colleagues within the Allied system.
David Murphy lectures in military history and strategic studies with the Department of History, Maynooth University. He is the author of Breaking Point of the French Army: the Nivelle Offensive of 1917 (Pen & Sword)