World War II: Emergency American Arms to Britain (June 1940)


Figure 1.--

The evacuation at Dunkirk saved the British Army, but its equipment had to be abanoned on the beachs and surrounding countryside. The First Canadian Army was the only fully equipped force in Britain prepared to resist a German invasion. If the Germans had been able to invade at the time, they would have encountered a largely disarmed Britain. British factories could rapidly produce the needed arms and equipment, but they needed time and the Germans were not prepared to give them time. Britain turned to the United States for emergency arms delivries. President Roosevelt responded immediately and ordered U.S. military arsenals to send all available war materiel to Britain. Many in America opposed this step, including General Marshall. Arms for Britain mean that the Ameican Army would be less prepared. Roosevelt was, howevr adament. The shipments included a great del of World War I equiment. America shipped 500 French 75 artillery pieces as well as 0.5 million 500,000 Enfield rifles, 500 mortars and machine guns, and large quantities of amunitin which had also been left at Dunkirk. The rifles and machine guns proved to be of only limited use because the American 30-06 round was completely incompatible with the British 303 round. (This was a problem not resolved until the formation of the North Atlantic Trreaty Organization (1948). The American rifles were used mainly to arm the Home Guard and for training. The American artillery pieces and mortars, however, ewre vital. These shipments were only a fraction of the Lend Lease arms that were to follow, but they came when Britain was desperate. During the crucial summer of 1940, the Americn arms were a substantial part of the artillery available to the British Army. The RAF narrowly managed to preent the expected invasion, but if the Germans had come that summer this woukd have been the artillery available to the Army. [Moss] Roosevelt's decesion was made not only opposition from the U.S. Army, but in theface of the powerful Isolationist Movement that was organzing to ensure that he would not be reelected.

German Western Offensive (May 10, 1940)

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The French airmed pleas for American intervention.

American Arms Deliveries

The Allies (Britain and France) were the major buyers of American arms manufacturers.

French Pleas

President Reynud pleaded with both Churchill and Roosevelt to planes to help fight off the Luftwaffe attacks which had been an important part of the German Blitzkrieg offensive. Churchill promissed more fighter support. Chief Air Marshall Hugh Dowding informed him that Britain could not afford to futher erode its fighter defensives. Churchill sent a few planes, but held back most of what was left--25 fighter squadrons for the defense of Britain. President Roosevelt ordered a French air craft carrier loaded with 44 of the most advanced American dive bomber against the strnous protests of the U.S. Navy. Another 62 planes of other types were also loaded on the carrier. The carrier, however, did not reach France in time. After thec French asked for an armistice, the carrier was diverted to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. [Peters] This an other French vessels were kept there by Vichy, in part to keep them out of German hands. They would become a bone of contention as relations between Ameica and Vichy deteriorated.

Dunkirk (May 26-June 2, 1940)

As the Panzers cut accross France, the British decided to evacuate the BEF. About 400,000 British an French soldiers began to fall back on Dunkirk. At this time the BEF was still within Hitler's grasp. It was not just the number of men that were at stake. The BEF was the professional core--the heart of the British Army. The men of the BEF would be the officers and NCOs of the British army that would eventually play an important role in defeating the Germans. The loss of the BEF would hsve crippled the Bitish war effort if not forced the British to seek terms. Churchill warned the Commons that it "should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings". The Panzers were only a few miles south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Although King Leopold III surended the Belgian Army, the French First Army delayed the Germans. The BEF fell back toward Dunkirk, abandoing their equipment along the roads. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as akmost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the corps of the future British Army that would play such an important role in the War. All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost and there was no replacemments for the lost equipment waiting for them back in England.

British Army

The evacuation at Dunkirk had been nothing short of miraculous and saved the British Army. The Royal Navy, the little boats, the RAF, and the weather all combined to savee the Army. The Army had, however, been forced to abanon iys equipment on the beachs and surrounding countryside. The British Army and not the Wehrmacht had been the only fully mechanized army at the onset of World War II. Huge quantities of equipment hd been abandoned. There were an estimated 120,000 vehicles and perhaps as many guns. Almost all its heavy artillery had been left at Dunkirk. The First Canadian Division was the only fully equipped force in Britain prepared to resist a German invasion. If the Germans had been able to invade at the time, they would have encountered a largely disarmed Britain. British factories could rapidly produce the needed arms and equipment, but they needed time and the Germans were not prepared to give them time.

British Request

Britain turned to the United States for emergency arms deliveries.

Presidential Decesion

President Roosevelt responded immediately and ordered U.S. military arsenals to send all available war materiel to Britain. Many in America opposed this step, including General Marshall. Arms for Britain mean that the Ameican Army would be less prepared. Roosevelt was, howevr adament.

Arms Shipments

The shipments included a great del of World War I equiment. America shipped 500 French 75 artillery pieces as well as 0.5 million 500,000 Enfield rifles, 500 mortars and machine guns, and large quantities of amunition which had also been left at Dunkirk. The U.S. Army began packing these arms and loading onto boxcars even as the Royl Navy and smallboats were bringing the Army back from Dunkirk. The rifles and machine guns proved to be of only limited use because the American 30-06 round was completely incompatible with the British 303 round. (This was a problem not resolved until the formation of the North Atlantic Trreaty Organization (1948). The American rifles were used mainly to arm the Home Guard and for training. The American artillery pieces and mortars, however, ewre vital. [Moss] These shipments were only a fraction of the Lend Lease arms that were to follow, but they came when Britain was desperate.

Controversy

President Roosevelt's decesion within this context was a an act of some political bravery. Roosevelt was not expected to run again because of the tradition against a third term. Elenaor was preparing for life afer the White House. The Fall of France changed this. The President decided to run again, although he did not announce his decesion. He did set about promoting a draft Roosevelment movement within the Democratic Party. Roosevelt's decesion to id Britain was made not only opposition from the U.S. Army, but in the face of the powerful Isolationist Movement that was organzing to ensure that he would not be reelected should he decide to fun again. President Roosevelt's action to help reequip Britain in its time of maximum peril was thus at the time controversial. The U.S. Army was still very small and even so poorly equipped. Shipping arms to Britain meant it would be longer before the Army could be properly equipped and this would be even more of a problem when the United States began to significantly expand the Army. There were voices boh within and without the Administration who argued against the shipments. Few fully understood what fighting the War would be like without the British. General Marshall opposed the shipments and made this plain to the President. His priority was equipping the U.S. Army. He did not, however, mae his objections public. Secretary of War Harry Woodring strenuosly opposed the shipments and did made his opposition public. Woodring had served as a second lieutenant in the Tank Corps during World War I (1917-18). He entered politics and was elected Kansas governor (1931), a notable achievement in a largely Republican state. politican who had The President appointed Woodring Assistant Secretary of War (1933). He focused on procurement matters which is one reason he opposed shipping military equipment still in short supply overseas. The President turned to his to be the Secretary of War (1936). He coninued the policies of his predecessor to increase the size of the Regular Army, National Guard, and Reserve Corps. He oversaw a revision of mobilization plans to bring personnel and procurement into balance and stressed the need to perfect the initial (peacetime) protective force. He was, however, a non-interventionist, Isolationism and non-interventionist feeling was especially pronounced in the Mid-West. The President was determined to aid Britain and asked Woodring to resign (1940). Disagreeing with the Presidentwas not the issue, it was doing so publicly. And it provided valuable fodder to the Isolationists at a very critical point. The Isolationists after Dunkirk were spreading rumors that Britain was planning to sue for peace just like France. The President's detractors charged that if the arms crossed the Atlantic they would soon fall into the hands of the Nazis. [Peters] Churchill wrote after the War, "All this reads easy now, but at the time it was asublime act of faith and leadership for te United States to deprive themselves of this very considerable mass of arms for the sake of a country which many deemed already beaten."

Operation Sea Lion (June-September 1940)

During the crucial summer of 1940, the Americn arms were a substantial part of the artillery available to the British Army. The German Plan to invade Britain after the fall of France was code named Oprtation Sea Lion. The BEF had managed to escape capture at Dunkirk, but had to abandon their heavy equiment. Th American Naval Attaché reported that the British were no more prepared to defend the coast than Long Island. The British asked America for surplus World War I destroyers, but President Roosevelt was not yet ready to authorize this. He did ask General Marshall to find surplus arms, mostly small arms, that could be rushed to Britain. [Freidel, p. 336.] It is not clear to what extent Hitler ever seriously contemplated an invasion. Some believe he simply wanted to threaten the British, asuming that they would agree to seek terms. The first step, however, would have to be air superority over the Channel. Hitler ordered the Lufwaffe to destroy the RAF. After the failure of the Luftwaffe air campaign, Hitler cancelled Sea Lion (September 17). The failure to subdue Britain was his first real reversal and came as a great surprise. Hitler had always maintsained that he would never commit Germany to a two-front war. Frustrated at the Channel, however, he turned his attention east toward the Soviet Union.

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

The fall of France meant that Britain stood alone and for a year had to valiantly fight the Germans without allies. American public opinion was deciseively isolationist--against involvement in another European war. Most Europeans and Americans thought Britain would soon colapse and further resistance was futile. But the British stirred by Prime Minister Churchill did fight. The British were battered, but held. Newreel footage of the Luftwaffe bombing London and other British cities had an enormous impact on American public opinion. The RAF narrowly managed to preent the expected invasion, but if the Germans had come that summer this would have been the artillery available to the Army. [Moss] The Luftwaffe's filure to establish air superiority over the Channel made invasion impossible. It was the first German defeat of the War. The narrow, but decisive victory in the Battle of Britain changed the course of the War. As Hitler turned his evil view east toward Russia, a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier with a population willing to make virtually any sacrifice remained in his rear.

Ameican 1940 Political Campaign

The 1940 presidential election is arguably the most important election in American history. The first American President, George Washington, retired after two 4-year terms. This set a precedent that every other president had followed. FDR because of the international crisis decided to run for a third term which became a campaign issue. The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. His Republican opponent was a surprise choice, Wendell Willkie, a wealty busniessman who had swept the Republican primaries. Willkie did not crticise FDR's support for the democracies, by the time of the camapign only England. His nomination was an indication of the shift in public opinion toward intervention. Willkie instead pledged "all aid to the Democracies short of war". He attacked the New Deal on domestic issues, what he referred to as the socialistic policies of the Administration. Roosevelt's foreign policy was, however, an issue in the campaign. The isolationists led by the American First Committee accused FDR of trying to drag America into the war. Speaking in Boston on October 30, the President assured his audinence, "I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Usually the phrase was "foreign wars" and usually the President added, "unless we are attacked". The election was another victory for FDR, but not the landslide of previous camapigns. Still FDR carried 39 of the 48 states. The election, however, was much closer than suggested by the results. FDR saw his re-election as strong pupblic support for a program of military preparedness and aid to Britain.

Sources

Moss, Norman. Nineteen Weeks: America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940 (2004).

Peters, Charles. Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Wilkie!" Convention of 1940.








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Created: 10:31 PM 3/14/2006
Last updated: 8:08 PM 10/9/2012