The stories of the Top Ten British Battles of World War Two tells you much about Britain’s military history and the role that Britain played during the greatest military conflict of the twentieth century.
Clearly there can always be some argument as to which battles should be included in the top ten; others not included have a great claim. Those that have been chosen are the ones that played a significant part in the outcome or course of the war; sometimes not to Britain’s advantage!
All these battles were fought by British servicemen or where British serviceman played a significant part. Many of these British battles include a significant role played by Commonwealth countries notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Let’s also not forget the people of Malta, nor American, Polish and Free French serviceman that contributed to the cause.
The order in which these battles are listed does not attempt to place them in order of importance or significance – that, perhaps, would be an impossible task! Each are listed in the chronological order of the date that they started and have been put in context with wider events at the time:
1. The Battle of the Atlantic
(3rd September 1939 – 8th May 1945)
Escorting the Convoys
This was the longest Battle of the entire war. It started the day that Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany and ended on the day that Germany surrendered five-and-a-half years later.
The Battle accounted for (on all sides) over 100,000 casualties and the loss of over 3,500 merchant ships and over 1,000 warships (including U-Boats).
The conflict in the Atlantic Ocean is perceived as bringing Britain to the point of starvation and nearly leaving the country without the necessary resources to continue fighting the war. About the Battle, Churchill said, “The ‘U-boat peril’ was the only thing that ever really frightened me.”
2. Dunkirk & The Battle of France
(10th May 1940 – 25th June 1940)
British Troops are welcomed home from Dunkirk
Dunkirk is viewed by the British as mostly a triumph. But it was born from the disaster of The Battle of France.
It took Germany just six weeks to conquer four countries and drive a fifth, the United Kingdom, from continental Europe. In this short period Germany accomplished what they had failed to achieve in four years during the First World War.
With Germany’s re-worked Schlieffen Plan, France’s ineptitude and Britain’s lack of preparation for war; this was an easy victory for Hitler. This Battle includes Italy’s invasion of France over the Alps on the 10th June 1940.
3. The Battle of Malta ("The Siege of Malta")
(11th June 1940 – 20th November 1942)
Spitfires defeat the Luftwaffe in Malta
The climax of this battle was in 1942 but it actually started in 1940 before even the Battle of Britain. During this period, for two and half years, Italy and later Germany laid siege to Malta dropping more bombs on the tiny island than on the entire UK throughout the war.
With the King awarding the George Cross to the people of Malta for their bravery, the battle culminated in mid-1942 when Malta became strategically vital and the RAF’s premier fighter commander, Air Marshall Keith Park arrived and turned the tide against the Luftwaffe.
4. The Battle of Britain
(10th July 1940 – 31st October 1940)
Spitfires command the skies over Britain
The Battle of Britain is arguably one of the most important battles of the war. Had Germany won and invaded Britain, history may have been entirely different.
Now viewed as one of the iconic British Battles, the RAF prevented the Luftwaffe from gaining control of the skies over Britain and so was able to continue, still alone, its combat with Germany.
But behind the headlines about the bravery of “The Few” lies the story of RAF intrigue and in-fighting within the higher echelons of the RAF that led to distorted perceptions of the architects and commanders responsible for this victory.
5. The Battle of Taranto
(11th November 1940 – 12th November 1940)
Royal Navy’s Torpedoe Planes attack
Keen to reduce the threat of the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy used the novel tactic of attacking the Italian fleet at Taranto using Swordfish torpedo planes launched from aircraft carriers.
The success of the Royal Navy in this engagement, in what appears to be little more than a skirmish, was so profound that if the same damage had be wrought on the Italian fleet by the Royal Navy in a full scale naval battle, it would have been written up as one of Nelsonian proportions.
Such was the novel success of this British Battle that it inspired the Japanese to use the same tactics at Pearl Harbour.
6. The Battle of Malaya & Singapore
(8th December 1941 – 7th February 1942)
Surrender in Singapore
Under-resourced British and Commonwealth troops, lacking proper training, effective air-cover and quality leadership, were swept aside by a smaller Japanese army leading to the biggest surrender in British military history.
The Royal Navy suffered the first ever loss of a capital ship to air-attack when their most up-to-date battleship, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk along with HMS Renown. This had a profound effect on naval thinking.
The Battle signalled the effective end of British power and prestige in the Far East.
7. The Battles at El Alamein
(1st July 1942 – 11th November 1942)
British Infantry in action in North Africa
The three battles fought at El Alamein were to become the military turning-point for Britain in the War. Together with the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia, it also proved to be the turning point of the entire war in Europe.
Victory here was a strategic necessity for Britain who desperately needed to defeat Rommel and take control of the Mediterranean while also needing to prove to their new partner, the USA that they were capable of fighting and winning.
Properly resourced with help from the USA, the British Eighth Army defeated Rommel at Alamein bringing to an end three years of impasse in the Western Desert.
8. The Combined Bomber Offensive
(10th June 1943 – 1st April 1944)
Bomber crews take a terrible toll
Unable to fulfil the demands of Stalin of opening a second front against Germany in 1943 by invading France, it fell to the new Commander of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Arthur “Bomber” Harris to undertake a massive bombing campaign against Germany in tandem with the US Air Force.
Thinking that it could be a viable way of winning the war, the Americans bombed by day and the RAF by night. It proved to be massively expensive; of the 125,000 British aircrew who took part on the campaign, 75,446 (60 percent) were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
9. The Battle of Imphal & Kohima
(8th March 1944 – 22nd June 1944)
The most gruelling campaing of the war
Japan attacked the British Fourteenth “Forgotten” Army under General Bill Slim who was waiting for reinforcements. Besieged at Imphal and Kohima, the British desperately held out in what became known as the “Stalingrad of the East”.
With reinforcements the British broke out, joined up and defeated the Japanese.
With over 30,000 casualties, this was Japan’s largest reverse in military history. It was the turning point in a most gruelling campaign and led to the Allies re-capture of Burma.
It is viewed by the British National Army Museum as “Britain’s Greatest Battle”.
10. The Battle of Normandy
(6th June 1944 – 6th August 1944)
British troops landing on D-Day
D-Day was the largest amphibious invasion in history when the Allies assaulted Normandy in June 1944. It was just the start of the campaign to capture Normandy from where the allies would take the land war to German soil.
Having fought through the Bocage, the British and the Canadians captured the French city of Caen in August 1944 bringing this battle to a successful yet costly conclusion.