War had come again in September 1939, and once more the call had gone out to the Empire's scattered millions. The Australian Minister Richard Casey was reportedly fond of G. K. Chesterton's remark that Commonwealth members were like passengers on a London omnibus; as a rule they ignored one another until such time as there was a crisis, when they all pulled together.1 On this occasion the same was once again true, leaving London overrun with 'bold-eyed Canadians with a slouch and a swagger, New Zealanders with overcoats hanging untidily, Australians often with girls', an 'invading armies of irresponsible younger brothers' who, according to the observer who was working in Canada House, 'the English soldiers looked at not unkindly but with a sober ironic air -puppies and old hound dogs'.2 Speaking at a lunch of the United Wardens of the City of London in February 1942, Attlee had reminded his audience that 'in the dark days of 1940 after the fall of France when Hitler's blow fell on Britain, Britain was not alone because she had with her the British Commonwealth and Empire'.3 They had come not to fight a war of survival, as many seemed to think, but as a demonstration of their loyalty to a far greater cause. This fortitude was shared by a Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, writing in May 1940 before Dunkirk, who did not feel his Empire was threatened by ultimate defeat. The idea had never entered his head because the British Empire, what he termed as 'the domination of the world by the English-speaking nations in consultation', was in fact in its infancy.4 This all seems at odds with the recent research which, by examining British society and cultural trends, has sought to demonstrate that there is little evidence to suggest that public opinion necessarily still held such views. None of this is a new argument: to some 'the Empire penetrated the emotions of millions'; to others 'the British Empire vanished quietly and almost imperceptibly'.5 This is perhaps today most obviously to be seen in the debate on 'Britishness' and the commonly perceived national ignorance about British history and the country's origins that exists among contemporary society.6
Undoubtedly at the war's end a reflective period had begun, examining the wartime alliance for clues about what it had achieved and it started even before the Japanese emperor's final agreement to restore the conquered British Imperial territories to their pre-war suzerainty. Another Australian by birth, Professor Hessel Duncan Hall was another of the pre-war historians who had dedicated themselves to unravelling the secret of the Dominions. He had worked at the League of Nations and spent the war years at the British Embassy in Washington, from where he published an article in the highly respected Foreign Affairs entitled 'The British Commonwealth as a Great Power'.7 In this he noted varying interpretations that had been offered by way of description as to what was the British Commonwealth; perhaps most notable among these was an American view that it was 'little more than a mystical expression of spiritual affinities'. Events during the pre-war years could in his mind be seen as signifying separate legal sovereignty, 'the coming of age of a family of states'. Dominion status he saw as a thing of the past because the Commonwealth had passed out of its adolescent stage. It was a family relationship united by its common allegiance to the Crown. The FO read the article keenly and noted the points made. The article was said to show that Australia and New Zealand were most loyal, Canada was the most likely to take an independent line and disliked being regarded too often as 'part of the Commonwealth' and Smuts was loyal, but the reaction of the rest of the Dominion he led was uncertain. There was particular satisfaction, still, in recording that when the vote had been taken in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in September 1939 only a single member of parliament had failed to offer his support for the Empire's war; conveniently the South African example was put to one side.
The long, exhausting struggle that followed had not just been about defeating tyranny in Europe. The defence of their autonomy and sense of equality and a lingering allegiance to the Crown were ideals put forward as helping determine why the Dominions had done what they had done. It had actually been a massive battle for 'hearts and minds' where the ultimate goal was the maintenance of Imperial unity. That there was such a contest, not to mention the rules it adopted, had been often overlooked by the vast majority of those subconsciously involved. Among the ranks of the guilty were the respective parliaments, the aristocracy, the media, academia and various assorted think-tanks and conference attendees. Only a few recognized the true nature of what was happening. The most obvious of these was often not able to exert much influence; the Dominions secretary should have been the most powerful man in the 'white' Empire, but it was not always the case. Some of this came down to the quality of the individual. All of them tried in their own way but their motivation was not always compelling. Cranborne, despite his often poor health, was undoubtedly a key figure who encouraged those around him to do their utmost to maintain the sometimes fragile coalition. He was susceptible to the often Machiavellian intrigues of Westminster and ultimately his interventions led to his removal from office; during his absence it seems clear that the department over which he presided was seriously undermined.8 When he said in a House of Lords debate that 'the British Commonwealth of Nations is today one of the greatest, one of the main elements of stability in a distracted world, and any division of opinion would only tend to weaken counsels and prolong our ordeal', he was speaking with conviction and passionate knowledge.9
The machinery of the Imperial system was kept working by a dedicated Whitehall organization. The size and complexity of the British Empire was recognized by the number of different departments required to oversee its management. Each had their role and their titles appeared self-evident, the India Office dealt with India, the CO the colonies and the FO everything else.10 The creation of the DO added to this team although at the war's outbreak this constituted fewer than 100 people administering the needs of the Dominions from a ramshackle collection of offices, surrounded by considerable prejudices from many of their Whitehall peers. The regular warnings it issued about the potential that existed for confusion were often misunderstood or ignored. In part this was down to the many complicated and conflicting agendas which existed among the Dominion governments and the questionable degree of interest which these distant Imperial outposts generated in Whitehall corridors. The added challenge, certainly in the initial war years, of dealing with the Dominion high commissioners in London did little to improve the position. Tasked with securing the unity of the British Commonwealth of Nations, this meant the department faced a constant and often lonely struggle. This did not inhibit its response and there was quick condemnation when it was deemed necessary.11 Perhaps the best critique of the impact the DO made came from Gerald Campbell who, prior to taking his position in Washington, had been Britain's representative in Ottawa. Not originally from the department, he had gone to Canada with little knowledge of the country other than the generally negative Whitehall view. Upon his subsequent departure for his new role in Washington, he could only conclude that 'other UK departments ... would have produced secession any day of the week if what was once described to me as the "bloody Post Office" had not done a most useful job'.12 It might have been fair to claim that, pre-war, the DO had to 'concentrate on tactics rather than strategy' because it lacked political muscle.13 During this final conflict, while the general view appears to have been a blissful ignorance of its activities or even existence, it is undoubtedly the case though that this was a department that played a major, if largely unrecognized, role in the successful wartime management of the British Empire.
The power within this alliance lay with the prime ministers, specifically those of Britain, Canada and Australia, and their closest acolytes within government. Primus inter pares was obviously Winston Churchill and here lay a good deal of the problem. Amery, the founder of the DO and a father-figure in terms of the Anglo-Dominion relationship, was undoubtedly better placed than most—albeit with an overly passionate and generally biased eye—to comment on the performance of the British leader. He lamented that he 'never really sympathized with any of the developments in Imperial relations during the present century' and begged the Dominions secretary to see to it before the 1944 visit by the Dominions' leaders 'that Winston does not let loose some passage of old-fashioned Victorian Imperialism' on his visiting Canadian counterpart.14 As Churchill had himself said at the height of the Battle of Britain, he had always faithfully served two 'supreme causes': the first was 'the historic certainty of our Island life'; the other 'the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain and her Empire'.15 Despite such typically bombastic rhetoric the truth was that he clearly did not find it easy to preside over a free Commonwealth at a time when the pace of wartime events meant action had to be taken quickly and, often, secretly. He still lived in the days of the old Empire, a single unified whole bound together by romantic attachment to British ideals and pride in British accomplishments. The system that existed in his mind did not question the direction issued from the centre and he sometimes appeared unable to understand why the modern version was not the same.
And then there were the Dominions. Australia had been by far the most pronounced in both its support and, in equal measure, its criticism. The position it felt it occupied within the corridors of power and influence in London and the actual situation were, however, often quite different. The reality was that the self-perceived 'blue-eyed boy amongst the Dominions' was often in fact sometimes loathed. Menzies came and went and caused trouble in the process and bore much of the blame for this state of affairs. His successor was then largely instrumental in causing the political clash between the British and Australian governments following the Japanese attack in December 1941, which proved to be perhaps the most serious threat to Anglo-Dominion relations during the entire war. Bitterness and recriminations persisted for many months, the tensions becoming so visible that The Times was moved to comment on the unfortunate impression that 'Australian plain speaking is synonymous with empty grumbling and futile fault-finding'. Churchill apparently later claimed that he generally liked Curtin, 'this eminent and striking Australian personality', and it was certainly true that in time he was thought of favourably within the DO, both generally and by US senior figures. But at the time of Singapore's denouement the significance of the shock, both physical and mental, caused by the rapid collapse of the alliance's military position could not be denied. The repercussions were devastating, the value of the British connection was open to question and with the raising of doubts about whether it could ever be restored an opportunity presented itself for the United States to exploit the discord. Subsequent aid from Washington was as much mischievous as sincere. Australia's primary function in their new ally's strategy proved to be as a base from which to mount operations across the Pacific and South East Asia in driving Japan back; when this role receded from mid-1944 onwards, American leaders paid correspondingly less heed to Australian wishes.
In turn disenchantment led to Curtin's London 1944 proposals, a demonstration that his country was not in fact chained to any 'American imperium'.16
The oldest and largest Dominion, Canada, maintained an often subdued approach to its relations with 'the Mother Country'. William Mackenzie King remained highly suspicious of Whitehall's motives. Backed by advisers who also, in some cases, had serious doubts about Britain's intentions, his fear was that the war would be used as a pretext to challenge the idea of Dominion autonomy. This ensured that, certainly until his visit to London in August 1941, his support could appear far from enthusiastic and wherever possible he kept comment on how the alliance should proceed to a minimum. The sizeable French-speaking population in Quebec had no real sympathy with the British Empire even when Vichy's fall meant that their support should have been unquestioned. Fully aware of the potential dangers this held, particularly if there were to be any repeat of the First World War's casualty figures, he fought a sometimes lonely war, one in which he was ever conscious of the growing significance of the United States. Ritchie noted in his diary in March 1941 that the average Englishman looked upon the Canadian military as 'an army of friendly barbarians who for some incomprehensible reason have come to protect him from his enemies'. Canadian troops were indeed the first to arrive on British shores and the contribution they made to the coalition war effort during the decisive campaigns in Italy and North-West Europe could not be criticized. Popular opinion in Canada though appeared to empathize with the sometimes mercurial leader in Ottawa; a Gallup opinion poll conducted in June 1942 showed that just 52 per cent of those questioned definitely wished to remain within the Empire.17
In the Union's case, the controversial manner in which Jan Smuts had become prime minister in September 1939 was always likely to place restraints on the degree of active support he could offer, a point fully understood by the DO if not always elsewhere in Whitehall. It was much more commonly accepted that the South African effort and Smuts were symbiotic; as the British high commissioner in Pretoria put it in July 1942, 'the further contribution that South Africa can make to the Allied cause depends all too absolutely on the life, health and continued leadership of Field Marshal Smuts'. Throughout the war he faced an organized nationalist opposition that, in many cases, openly sympathized with Nazi Germany's objectives. Wartime instructions from the WO for Army educators stipulated that they were to stress in their briefings that the Union was 'an independent sovereign state' and that Britain had no control over 'internal or external policy'.18 The South African military was obliged to operate on two levels, with only those who wore 'Red Tabs' on their uniforms willing to serve outside of the African theatre of operations; this ultimately did not prevent them from marching all the way through Italy. Indeed the Dominion's military played a full part, in all about 200,000 of its citizens served during the war, nearly half of whom were Afrikaans-speakers, and there were 35,000 killed, wounded or captured. Following the loss of Tobruk Smuts considered what a retreat from Egypt would entail and the wider impact it would have. Such an eventuality, he concluded, would lead to his removal from power and a political change which would see the Dominion 'cease to be a line of Empire communication'. His proposed fighting retreat to the Sudan or the Eritrean highlands proved unnecessary and, militarily, the position was quickly restored but this was indicative of the difficulties he faced. Indeed the South African leader was obliged to maintain a consistently cautious line and, despite his 1943 electoral triumph, his post-war demise proved unavoidable.19
Last but by no means least, there was New Zealand. Out of a total population of 1,630,000 at the war's beginning, some 355,000 were 18-45-year-old males. By the end of 1943 mobilized forces including full-time home defence stood at 129,000, with a further 284,000 taking a part-time home role, a remarkable effort. With the exception of the Soviet Union, battle casualties were expressed as being the highest in proportion to population of any member of the United Nations.20 With its predominantly British-drawn population, its distance from the European theatre and the relative inexperience it had in foreign affairs, the general acquiescence it showed to the British government was not surprising in the early years of the struggle. The historically intense dislike of fascism that successive governments in Wellington had held was also significant, helping to further strengthen its endorsement of British policies. Only with Japan's attack on the Far East, which brought the region directly into the expanding global conflict did first private doubts, and then more serious public questions begin to emerge. Peter Fraser's calls for a greater direct role for his country in wartime planning were critically received by Churchill but the Dominion's previous unflinching support helped ensure that its standing in London still remained strong, and would continue to do so until the war's end. Certainly the eagerness with which the idea of an international security organization was welcomed did not mean that New Zealand would lead the charge to distance itself from the 'Mother Country'. In the years immediately following the war's end the country still enjoyed the reputation of being the 'good boys' of the Commonwealth family. It would be the last to ratify the Statute of Westminster in 1947 and another forty years would pass before the official use of the description 'Dominion of New Zealand' was ended.21
Watching all of this from the sidelines with some apparently malevolent intent was the United States with its criticisms of the British Empire. Militarily its contribution obviously proved decisive, without it there would likely have been no need for a post-war debate about unity as there would have been nothing left to hold together.22 There was a price to pay and this was an almost incessant rumbling from the western shores of the Atlantic, a crescendo that had begun long before the war's outbreak and would continue long after its end.23 They did, however, present a serious danger; Richard Law, the under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, visited Washington in September 1942 and reported back to the British War Cabinet that it might not prove possible to instruct the American people in the real nature of the British Empire because 'the ghosts of Lord North and the Hessian troops still haunted their thoughts'.24 In response three months later a 'Committee on American Opinion and the British Empire' was established under his chairmanship and its initial meetings concluded that Americans were 'extremely ill-informed' about Empire. They did not, for example, grasp that the Dominions were as autonomous as one another, and it was recorded as being still quite usual to be asked by American hosts when visiting the country '"how much do you make Canada pay towards the cost of your Navy?" or "will you reward the Australians for their efforts in the war by treating them better afterwards?"' Considerable time and resources were devoted in an attempt to correct such impressions, but it is questionable how far these efforts succeeded and the degree to which prominent Americans were encouraged to talk less 'as if the British Empire were in the process of dissolution'.25 Lord Snell, present at a speech given at the Royal Empire Society in January 1943, had argued that it was better for America to be critical of the Empire than indifferent as if it was interested differences could be explained away. They should not think of it as 'something completed'. 'The Empire was not breaking up, it was growing up.' There were others who were more indignant; one writer put it that the hint that perhaps the British Empire was doomed beyond recall would be 'greeted by a storm of abuse, spluttering futility, or humorous evasion'.26 The 'Special Relationship' endured despite such fears and suspicions; today the debate centres increasingly on which of the two has been more 'imperial' in the way in which it dominated the international system of its day.27
This all came at a price, the financial cost of the British effort to hold its position was simply staggering. The taxpayer had funded the war, and in the process the country had become a debtor nation, by the war's end the largest in the world: it owed £15 billion to the United States and a further £3 billion to other members of the Sterling Zone. Here was ample demonstration, if more were needed, of how the alliance had changed. The individual fiscal burden to the British was enormous, no less than 42 per cent of the whole of the personal income from the outbreak of war up until victory in Europe had been taken in taxation or out of savings to finance the government's expenditure. The country had sold almost everything it had, including £1.1 billion of foreign assets, but accumulated debts around the world totalled £2.7 billion. Churchill had not been afraid to tell Stalin at the Potsdam conference in the summer of 1945 that Britain 'came out of this war as the greatest debtor in the world' and that the country was in effect bankrupt. When Lend-Lease was abruptly ended that following September Britain had received over £31 billion of supplies; Washington decided to issue an invoice for just £650 million but this was still money that Britain did not have.28 Militarily the cost was just as high.29
Much thought had been devoted throughout the last years of the war to how the alliance could move forward intact and with a sense of Imperial unity that would provide Britain a voice in the new international system greater than its shattered economical position should allow. Even with a change in government -the new Labour government was determined to maintain British influence in the world—the Empire was not to be surrendered. It was seen as the solution to most problems in the post-war period, what one writer has described as 'a convenient framework for projecting a certain image of Britain'. Broadly speaking it was still a British Commonwealth; out of a population of about 87 million spread around the globe, about 15 million were not British and these were predominantly in South Africa and Canada. Unfortunately this goal did not materialize as the nature of the Dominion idea quickly changed. Sweeping political changes were about to take place and this would alter the balance beyond all pre-war comprehension, in the eyes of some commentators actually giving the Dominions a key role in preserving the Empire's future. It would also bring with it issues of British citizenship and allegiance to the Crown and the realization that none of the new club was prepared to unhesitatingly follow the ideas developed by British officials. Some of this had been foreseen by Lord Halifax in the spring of 1944, when commenting on the FO memorandum discussing the alliance's future. He had already identified that the use of the terms 'Dominions' and 'Dominion status' would likely cease at some future point as 'they may be held to imply that there is some difference in status between the United Kingdom and the other Dominions'. His conclusion was that some other phrase would be required such as 'nations of the Commonwealth' or 'Member States of the Commonwealth'. This prediction came to pass with the London Declaration, the result of the April 1949 gathering of Heads of State from the Commonwealth, which has been said to have marked the birth of the modern organization and formally changed the name from 'British Commonwealth' to 'Commonwealth of Nations'.30 This was a collapse that, with hindsight, some saw as being inevitable. One post-war view held that the 'white' commonwealth had always represented 'a triumph of sentiment over strategy'.31 Many years later the same author argued that with British armed forces reduced during the inter-war years to operational impotence, realpolitik should actually have dictated that the Dominions were told that they would need to defend themselves. Instead sentiment intervened and the result was that 'strategic overstretch of Empire ended in strategic collapse, and Australia and New Zealand passed under American protection'. Of the many factors that kept it together so long, the most enduring was the idea that these distant people, while not always faithful to the idea that they owed some sort of fealty to the parliament in Westminster, were prepared to defend their monarch who lived a few streets away. This point was illustrated in a lengthy and effusive March 1944 portrait of King George VI published in Time which referred to a recent speech by Richard Law given to the American Chamber of Commerce in London in which he talked of 'the British Commonwealth'. As the widely read American publication put it, 'what Statesman Law calls "Commonwealth" practically all Britons call, without shame, "Empire"'. The war had 'at once tightened and loosened the bonds of Empire' and the link that undeniably held it together was 'the King-Emperor'.32Even Churchill, speaking post-war as the Leader of the Opposition, was prepared to agree with this assessment. He argued that the Statute of Westminster had swept away what he termed 'constitutional safeguards' and left the unity and cohesion of the British Empire reliant solely on the link to the Crown. What he did not go on to say was the degree to which he thought this still existed.33
Speaking a few months after the article referred to above was published in a Westminster debate Lord Cranborne had taken the opportunity to praise the British Commonwealth: 'that strange, unprecedented combination of self-governing nations, bound, not by visible bonds, but by ties of spirit is in a unique position at the present time'. He saw a great future as while there were bigger nations there was no other Power of a similar nature. 'Sprawled over the whole world, the British Commonwealth partakes of the qualities both of the Old and of the New World. It is firmly based in the past by its traditions and Constitutions, and it looks out fearlessly into the future.'34 The reality was that at the war's start the Dominions had still been relatively inexperienced in diplomacy but their international recognition, self-confidence and connections had all quickly grown in the years that followed. Their active participation in various wartime theatres had been accompanied by marked signs of British military weakness. By the time church bells were rung throughout Britain, for the first time since the summer of 1940, to celebrate the final victory at El Alamein in November 1942, the alliance had already altered beyond any hope of repair.35 For the most part at this point British leadership was still accepted, but on occasions even this was qualified or more obviously carried overt reluctance. The establishment of the United Nations organization effectively signalled political emancipation and the DO warned that in the post-war system the ideal policy for dealings with the Dominion governments would be based on 'private wisdom and public silence'. While South Africa and Canada had shown a readiness to put up with this guarded approach when it suited them, even before the game of chance really got started Australia and New Zealand had shown that they seemed determined to take the opposite line.36 The exertions shown by each of them in the war enhanced their national pride and, by something of a paradox, eroded imperial unity. An alliance that had started the war as 'Dominions' had ended it as a 'British Commonwealth', and in the process an Empire had been lost.