The British Empire and the Second World War by Ashley Jackson - review by Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones

Finest Hour

The British Empire and the Second World War


Hambledon/Continuum 622pp £25

John Betjeman put it succinctly:

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

(From ‘In Westminster Abbey’)

Historians of the Second World War have increasingly seen it as a gigantic showdown between the two totalitarian titans, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, with a late and separate duel between the US and Japan. Other participants and theatres have tended to be relegated to minor players and sideshows. But, as Betjeman noted at the time, and as Ashley Jackson reminds us in this magisterial book, there was another vast power bloc involved in the struggle and – unlike the latecoming US and USSR – engaged from the first day of war to the last: the British Empire.

The second myth that Jackson buries is the already discredited notion of British splendid isolation. Although it suited Churchillian propaganda to make much of Fortress Britain and 'our island race' battling on, undaunted and alone, 'Britain' was not just the fifty million inhabitants of the British Isles, but the 500

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