World War 2


Britain's Economy during the War

Despite being able to draw upon the resources of the British Empire and the Commonwealth, the United Kingdom reached the limit of its was potential relatively early on in the war. Survival necessitated increasing reliance on financial and other aid from the United States in 1940-41. The War economy thus depended to a great extent on external support. Moreover, though supplemented by the efforts of the Dominions, the relatively small size of the British population (47 million)exposed limits to the size of both the war economy and the armed forces by 1943-44. Civilian consumption was regulated through rationing, and virtually all labour progressively mobilised, women included (though as elsewhere in the West traditional assumptions concerning gender roles set limits to participation).

However, only so much could be done. In 1944, for example, with the British army at its maximum strength of over 2,700,000, British industry produced only 5,000 tanks, and through much concentration of effort slightly increased aircraft production to reach the maximum annual figure of 26,461.


Wartime Aircraft Production Figures
State
1939
1940
1941
1942
1943
1944
1945
UK *
8,190
16,149
22,694
28,247
30,963
31,036
14,145
USA
5,856
12,804
26,277
47,836
85,898
96,318
49,761
Germany
8,295
10,247
11,776
15,409
24,807
39,807
7,540


Tank Production Figures
State
1940
1941
1942
1943
1944
UK *
1,400
4,800
8,600
7,400
5,00
USA
400
4,200
23,800
29,400
17,500
Germany
2,200
4,800
9,300
19,800
27,300

* Includes the Commonwealth.

Moreover, due to structural wellness in British industry as well as poor design, certain essential war items were more costly to produce and less combat worthy than their German equivalents. British combat aircraft by the late stages of the war were, for example, second to none yet relatively costly to produce; while trucks and tanks were inferior in almost every respect.

Still, the British effort was in many respects an impressive one, especially for a cash-strapped democracy trying to fight a total war. Rationing and the allocation of labour were both handled with fairness and skill, and blatant propaganda usually eschewed in favour of (selectively) telling the truth. Though legal sanction existed and were sometimes used, the success of the British war effort ultimately depended on the willingness of the British people to make voluntary sacrifices. Despite strikes and lack of commitment in some sections of the population, the war effort from 1940 onward did generate a very real sense of unity within Britain.

Though well-meant efforts to strengthen morale in the armed forces and civilian sectors produced little response, it is worth remembering that the authorities never thought British conscripts and volunteers need the kind of draconian coercive measures common in both the German and Soviet armies to prevent collapse. All wartime myths aside, there really did exist a consensus that Hitler should be defeated and that sacrifices would have to be made.

Production lines in a Spitfire factory
Production lines in a Spitfire factory.