How well prepared for war was Britain in 1939?

How well prepared for war was Britain in 1939?

The British Army in 1939 was a small, professional force. It was supported by the Territorial Army. At the outbreak of war the British Expeditionary Force dispatched to France was 12 divisions in size. This was from a total force of 50 full and part-time divisions. In addition to the forces of the British Army, also consider the size of the forces that the British army could draw on from the dominions and British colonies. These included a number of divisions from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand along with a large armed force of approximately 200,000 stationed on the Indian sub-continent. In terms of immediate preparedness this force was relatively small compared with the forces of other major combatants. The fully trained professional army was limited in size and it would take some time for troops from the dominions to reach Europe.

The size of the army is only one indicator of military readiness for war, however. The machinery used by these forces also needs to be considered. The British forces had the advantage of having a fully motorised system of troop movement. This enabled relatively fast deployment of forces (The Wehrmacht were not entirely motorised at this stage). British artillery pieces were of high quality, a British 25 pound artillery piece was particularly accurate and successful in destroying enemy tanks, for example. However the armed vehicles of the British army at the time do not compare particularly favorably with those of their opponents. Tanks such as the ‘Matilda’ were difficult to destroy but lacked the maneuverability to engage in rapid attacks. Other armed vehicles, such as the tanks initially deployed into Northern Africa, had insufficient armour and suffered at the hands of an experienced Panzer commander. Other equipment included the Lee Enfield 303 rifle, the ‘Tommy gun’ which was a semi automatic sub-machine gun and the Sten gun. There were some problems with the reliability of some of these weapons, the Mark 2 Sten gun has been noted as being susceptible to jamming. However this gun could be easily dismantled and concealed which made it an ideal weapon to provide to resistance forces throughout Europe. The rifles and semi automatic weapons were supported by use of the 40lb Vickers 303 heavy machine gun which was extremely accurate and fired over 400 rounds per minute.

The RAF in 1939 consisted of 135 squadrons. This comprised 74 bomber and 24 fighter squadrons. In addition to the ‘fighting’ wing of the RAF there were a number of army support squadrons, reconnaissance squadrons and torpedo bombers. These were assisted by an Auxiliary airforce of some 19 squadrons. Throughout 1939 preparations were made for a possible air war. This included large exercises in Southern France and practice blackouts in parts of England. By the outbreak of war, radar had been fitted to a number of Bleinheim bombers. This increased the chances of the bombers finding their target and provided early warning of enemy attacks.

The on plane radar was supported by two systems of Radar detection. Chain Home and Chain Home Low were two networks of Radar station built along the south coast of England in the mid to late 1930’s. Chain Home could detect formations of aircraft flying over the coast of France. This enabled the RAF to scramble fighter squadrons to intercept bomber formations and would allow the RAF to counter any Luftwaffe movements in the event of an attack on Northern france, the Low Countries or Britain. Chain Home Low provided radar coverage against low flying aircraft. The development of this system of Radar (there were 21 Chain Home stations and 30 Chain Home Low stations operational in 1940) meant that defensive sorties against the Luftwaffe could be easily coordinated. This was of paramount importance during the Battle of Britain.

The Royal Navy was, in 1939, the largest naval force in the world. The fleet contained 15 Battleships, 7 Aircraft carriers, 66 cruisers, 184 Destroyers, 60 submarines and a number of support vessels. The main Naval base at Scapa Flow was considered to be impregnable and dominated the passage between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally there were navies controlled by British Dominions. Though impressive in terms of size, the Royal Navy in 1939 had several weaknesses. Many of the capital ships were old, only 2 post dated the First World War. The air power of the Royal navy was limited to short range reconnaissance. Many ships of the Fleet were fitted with ASDIC, a radar system that could detect submarines. Again, this suffered from having a short range and was not effective when the submarines had surfaced. This combines to leave the fleet open to attack from German U Boats, with only Depth Charges available as effective means of attacking enemy submarines from onboard the ships – air cover was provided by the Coastal Command and British submarines patrolled the North Sea and Northern approaches.


Isle of Wight Radar during the Second World War – This BBC site offers a thorough account of the developments of Chain Home and Chain Home Low during the build up to the Second World War and through the course of the war.

British Army – A brief analysis of the state of readiness of the British Army in 1939. This site notes the technical strengths and weaknesses of weapons, machines and armored vehicles.

Spartacus Encyclopedia – The Spartacus entry for the British Army in the Second World War outlines the strength of the BEF at the outset of war and offers an account of the different types of weapons deployed by the British Army.

British Military Aviation in 1939 – The RAF Museum offers an account of the RAF’s strength in 1939 and the manner in which the final preparations for war were conducted.

Separate Visions – An analysis of the different ways in which Britain and germany prepared for war. Includes some comments about british preparations for war on the Home Front and assesses the problems that Bomber Command would face in a lasting conflict in Europe.

63 Squadron – This site provides an account of the work done at Upwood Base by 63 Squadron of the RAF in 1938/9. This illustrates the manner in which the RAF was preparing for conflict and shows how preparations escalate as the political situation worsens.

Regiments and Corps of the Territorial Army in 1939 – A full list of the Territorial Army Units available for deployment in 1939. This site provides details of where these units were deployed, honours won by members of the unit and a full service history of each unit.

Naval History – This outstanding website provides details of the strength of the Royal Navy in 1939, outlines the primary objectives of the RN in 1939 and evaluates the Threats and possible responses to these. There are also detailed figures outlining the strength of each participating navy along with their losses during the war. The page concludes with a useful summary of technological developments made during the Second World War, extremely useful for studies of the battle for the Atlantic.

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Second World War
Causes of the Second World WarHow well prepared for war was Germany in 1939?How well prepared for war was Poland in 1939?
How well prepared for war was Britain in 1939?How well prepared was the Soviet Union for war in 1939?How well prepared for war was France in 1939?
Statistical analysis of Europe's readiness for war in 1939
Documents and Personal Histories of the Second World War
Battle of the Bulge. Diary EntriesAircraft Recognition SketchesAir Raid Roles and Precautions
Dealing with wartime bereavement
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