If the First World War started the decline of the British Empire, then certainly the Second provided the death stroke. In 1947, she gave up the "Jewel in Her Crown" which was India, and only a few years later lost the Suez canal. Today she is only a medium sized power with just a handful of tiny Island dependencies left of her once mighty empire. Here are 5 initiatives which might have turned the tide for the UK, and made her a great power for just a little while longer:
- Continued building Ark Royal aircraft carriers. In 1938, the Royal Navy received a warship with a large aircraft complement (up to 72), similar to US and Japanese vessels which eventually dominated the Pacific War. Rather than building more of the excellent Ark Royals, a class of armored carriers were started which used up precious steel that could have went to building desperately needed tanks. The new Illustrious ships only loaded half the aircraft, and was very difficult to repair when damaged. The argument for the extra armor was Britain's lack of high performance naval aircraft, and their likely use near enemy land bases, but in the Pacific America learned that a highly trained damage control party could perform miracles, and a wooden deck could be quickly and easily prepared.
- Wavell Takes Tripoli. After the astonishing victory of Beda Fomm over the Italians in February, 1941, and before the Germans entered the North African War, the road to Tripoli was wide open. Instead, the British Middle East commander gave in to pressure to gut and scatter his victorious Desert Army to aid the Greeks, with a second Dunkirk the eventual outcome. The reason later given by Churchill was the need to delay the German invasion of Russia by a few precious weeks, but this is only speculation. Defeating the Italians first before Rommel entered the scene would have freed the British for other imperatives, such as defending its Far Eastern colonies, or perhaps invading Italy 2 years earlier.
- Fighting the Battle of Britain overseas. Early in the war, British forces overseas suffered greatly for lack of fighters, including at the disastrous Battle of Crete, and the humiliating Fall of Singapore. Yet, where were the victors of the Battle of Britain at this time but performing "fighter sweeps" over Europe and baiting the German Luftwaffe. Hundreds of precious Spitfires and pilots were lost in the sweeps for no real gain. Better use of the Few would have been defending the colonies overseas.
- General Percy Hobart as England's Patton. At the dawn of the war in 1939, Britain possessed one of the world's premier experts on tank warfare, but he and his radical views on armor were discarded. Churchill later found Hobart as a Home Guard corporal defending his local village from the expected German invasion. Hobart was the genius who led the revolutionary tank maneuvers of the 20's and 30's and created the famed 7th Armored division, the Desert Rats in North Africa. He was a prickly character who offended almost everyone, but whose expertise and aggressiveness should have been kept during Britain's darkest hour. Eisenhower often overlooked George Patton's eccentricities because he knew his subordinate could win battles. By sacking such a valuable asset early in the war, Wavell proved he was no Eisenhower.
- Winning the Battle of the Atlantic First. The Royal Navy's war with the U-boats began in 1939 and wasn't considered won until the summer of 1943. The RAF Bomber command absorbed massive aircraft resources during this period, with very little to show for it, while the submarines hindered the planned D-Day invasion of Europe, thus extending the war. If the bombers had been diverted to Coastal Command from the start, and the U-boats defeated or at least contained in the Baltic, the RAF could have restarted its campaign later. Meanwhile, with North Africa cleared of the Axis (see above), the invasion of Europe could have occurred much earlier, even in late 1942!